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On Poetry

            I keep trying to push at my boundaries lately, to see if they are still solid brick or becoming something more flexible over time, and one of the boundaries I’m trying to move is the one that keeps me at a distance from poetry. I used to write poetry, and I even got some of my poems published way back when. I don’t remember what the toggle was, between poetry and songs and plays and novels and essays and short stories, but I wrote all of them at different times and often at the same time. I had (and still have) a form of Hypergraphia, an obsessive need to write. I used to write on my bare legs during summer classes in college, when I ran out of room on the page where I was supposed to be taking notes.

            I went through a phase of trying all of the forms of poetry I could find – Tanka, Haiku, Sonnet, etc. – and the rules were reassuring, for a while, and then not at all. So I tried to create my own forms, experimenting with meter and rhyme schemes and lower case letters and spacing on the page. I spent years at it, waiting for something to click into place and sound right and true, and it never really happened. I don’t know if I failed to reach the heart of poetry, or if poetry was just the wrong shape for my heart, but it left me feeling like only slivers of my story were visible, as if the best I could do was to present a broken mirror to the world.

            But recently there have been subjects that seem to beg for poetry. I tried to write about my Paw Paw trees and the Carolina Wren in poems, but they turned into essays, insistently, over and over again. I couldn’t seem to translate myself into the vocabulary and shape and size needed. I feel like there’s a mystery to poetry that I can’t crack, a rhythm I can’t find, or create.

I love what poetry can do: how it can say so much in a few words and inject wisdom so quickly, in so few images and words, into our collective blood streams. Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.

We read a lot of poetry at my synagogue, and the prayers themselves are often poems, or poetic prose, trying to capture that lightning of an Aha moment, so that in a relatively short service we can be reminded of why we live our lives the way we do. Prayer feels relatively meaningless, to me, without a community to sing and say it with me (either in person, on zoom, or in my imagination), because it’s that communal feeling that brings God, the idea, to life. And I think the same is true with poetry, for me. I need to imagine other people reading and hearing and thinking the poem at the same time in order to hear the echoes in the words.

“We’re listening too!”

            But I want to write poetry, not just read it. I want to be able to contain my thoughts and feelings in those manageable boxes, and have those small jewels to share: beautiful and perfect and under control. I thought, maybe, that I could freewrite, in order to get the ideas out of my head, and then find the poem by cutting the excess away. But all I could do was to take my clumsy, oversized self and chop away limbs until I fit inside of the box, and then I didn’t recognize the poem at all. Worse, I hated it for the monster it had become.

“Monsters? Where?!

            Prose gives me more room to stretch out, and to put the puzzle together in my own way, but still, poetry sits there on the shelf, waiting for me, glaring at me, wondering why I am still so far away.

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 Lucky Ladybug

            One day a few years ago, I noticed that I was being followed by ladybugs. There would be one on the wall behind my bed, then another one on my dresser, then out on the porch and on my wrist. I asked around, in case there was a surplus of ladybugs and everyone was having this experience and I was told, instead, that ladybugs are lucky.

Now, I have not been an especially lucky person. I don’t win contests or get discovered in malt shops. I gain weight easily and get injured easily. I tend to wish on eyelashes more than I should. But these ladybugs kept following me around.

A few weeks ago, there was a ladybug on my bedside table for twenty-four hours. At first, I thought it had come here to die. It was so still. I tried to move papers out from underneath it, and it didn’t move. But then mom nudged it with a finger, because she’s braver than I am, and it lifted its wings for a second and then settled back down. Maybe it liked having the light of my table lamp aimed at its back, maybe it was doing a little light reading, or maybe it had something it wanted to tell me.

I felt honored to be chosen like that. Honored to be the safe place for a ladybug to rest and recuperate or to pause before the next big journey. I wondered if my luck would change now that a ladybug had chosen me.

But in the research I did online it said the ladybug has to land on your body to bring good luck, and she didn’t do that. She stayed for twenty four hours and then disappeared.

Then, just recently, the ladybug returned, crawling up the length of my red comforter, looking like she fit right in. She walked right up onto my hand and then flew to my shoulder and tried to crawl up my neck and into my hair. That was a bit too creepy for me.

But is it the same lady bug? Is she persisting in trying to get her magic across to me? I would like to believe that. I would like to believe in the power of magical thinking, not just as an anti-depressant, but as an agent of change in the world. Just like prayer has been proven to have an effect, not just on the person who prays, but on the people she prays for, I want to believe the same about ladybugs. That just the act of wishing for and believing in luck can change the energy in the world, and change what happens next.