Category Archives: Practice

Shabbat Structure: Simply Sublime Spiritual Technology

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Solo Shabbat in Eire, Holy Hill Hermitage, Ireland, in my cabin named Clare in the Fall of 2016

Simple Shabbat, the basic structure is a phenomenal series of steps and prayers and practices to elevate the soul and align us with the essence of creation. I am writing this piece because a young woman, who was also on retreat, three years ago at the same hermitage as myself in Ireland, asked me about the order of the prayers. I led a few Shabbat ceremonies, both in my cabin and at the main house, for the other people on retreat. I was mostly alone, but there were moments of connection with the other hermits, clerics, and other folks taking sacred space in solitude.

I remember once being told by a dear friend of mine, Stephen Jenkins, professor Emeritus at Humboldt State University, who was getting ready to teach a three-day session on Judaism in his World Religions class, “Wish me luck, Nicole.” I responded with: “I don’t want to wish you luck, I need to come in and teach this part of your class.” I’m not sure those were my exact words, but this was the beginning of my lecturing in his World Religions Class. I have guest-lectured, during the Judaism portion of his classes, for over fifteen years now.

Some things cannot be put simply and survive the stripping down, especially when we are talking about Shabbat or Judaism in a three-day period of time. The mere idea of three days in a class on campus, to cover the topic, made me a little sick to my stomach. It felt kind of like asking me to describe the magnificence of the sunrise or my love for my children or any other sublime and mysterious, historical and elemental quality of the universe. It’s just not a three day or a one minute text or email kind of thing.

So, thank you Chelsea Smith, for asking me this question about the order of the prayers and why we cover the challah. I’m going to try to be brief, completely contradicting myself from the previous sentences. Of course, me being brief, is an oxymoron in and of itself.

When I lead a service I have a basic structure that I follow, which is not my invention and which has changed over the thousands of years that Jewish folks have been observing the Sabbath. I choose from various prayer books I like or I incorporate elements into my practice from those prayers when I am being a little looser in my observance.

You really begin by preparing for the time and setting the space. I clean my home, cook special foods, make challah (a braided Jewish egg bread).  I’ll get my recipe up here one of these days. You then create an altar. When the Beit Ha Midkash/Holy Temples were destroyed, Judaism did not die for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that we took the elements of our sacred service and rites that were observed in the Holy Temple and brought them into our homes and into our dining rooms.

As long as you have light (candles or oil lamps), wine, salt, bread, water, and prayers offered from your heart, you have the elements of the basic service. This means every Jewish home becomes a sacred temple in time and space. No one can say it better than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a simple short book called The Sabbath. I won’t begin to go where he has, but he describes Shabbat/the Sabbath as  both a Sanctuary and as a Palace in Time.

So, we begin by clearing and cleaning as if to welcome a sacred guest. That guest is the Sabbath Queen or the Shechinah or the Seventh Day. She is likened to a bride, she is always referred to in the feminine. We make special foods. For folks with little time or money, even during the Shoah and times of tremendous ugliness and torture, Jewish folks would hide a crust of bread or save one olive so they’d have two on Shabbat instead of one. Folks keep their best cheeses, oils, foods of any kind, for the three meals that occur beginning 18 minutes before the sun sets every Friday evening and ending when there are three stars in the sky the following night, Saturday. It’s roughly twenty-five hours or so, a little longer than one rotation of our spinning planet.

In Ireland, I couldn’t go buy a challah or get bread from Josh Fox, my favorite local baker, here in Arcata. I needed to make it. My little kitchen in my cabin, didn’t have an oven, so I had to make sure I could use the communal kitchen and arrange a time to be taking it over for many hours. I didn’t always do this, for many reasons, but here’s a picture of two small challahs I made for one of my blissful solo Shabbats.

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Small challahs, one in a traditional three braid form and one shaped like a Jewish Star of David, there’s also that key element SALT!

These Challahs are uncovered here, but they are traditionally covered with a cloth when we recite all the blessings before eating our Friday evening meal. This was the original question from Chelsea, “Why do you cover the bread again?”

We cover the bread because it is the final blessing we say before beginning our festive meal and we don’t want to hurt its feelings. This tiny piece of spiritual technology teaches us that if we are concerned about the feelings of our bread, so much so that we cover it, so it doesn’t know its the last in a long line of blessings, we better be that concerned about the feelings of all those we encounter. The bread thinks it’s the only blessing or the best blessing or the special blessing, because it somehow hasn’t heard or experienced all the previous ones. This seems a little comical, but it’s essential to Judaism. We physicalise our practices in small and large ways to make it not a mental exercise, but to embody the essence of what we are reaching for.

So, once the bread is made, I prepare the other foods and make my home and body ready to receive my guest. I take a bath or a shower, or I do a Mikveh (ritual immersion in living water, see Mikveh Movement and Me). Then I lay the table. I put the candles or oil wicks I am going to light out, I get the wine ready, open it and let it breathe so it is at its best. I make sure I have my prayer books or other readings I want to use, I pick fresh flowers and set the table more beautifully than I do for the rest of the week. It’s truly a special time.

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My Shabbat altar from my window seat in Clare.

Once all is ready, and usually this is minutes before you are required to kindle the lights of Shabbat, if I have time I meditate or center myself and let the week’s events play through my mind and release them. My beloved teacher, May his memory always be a Blessing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi sometimes used a small cardboard box that he passed around and asked folks to deposit their weeks’ cares, worries, and experiences into. He would then he take it and put it outside the room or the house. I sometimes do this with children. It’s a great way to physically demonstrate the practice of letting go.

Then I cover my head with a shawl (creating a sacred space in my body) and light the candles and move my hands over them to bring the light of Shabbat into my whole being, I move my hands over them in a circular motion and bring their essence over my head, eyes and body three times. I then recite the first of many blessings. This blessing is thanking the Divine for instructing us to kindle the lights of the day and to observe the practice of it by resting deeply.

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Photo by Temple Beth El’s President Joseph Hale, from one of my Lay-led Shabbat Services

It’s very hard to talk about even one of these blessings in a short way, but that’s my assignment right now. Arrrggghhhh! Each one of these practices have books and teachings about them that deserve attention. Simple structure, okay, after the blessing for the Sabbath light (remember how light was the first thing created in the Universe?), we welcome the Angels of the Most High (the special Shabbat-only angels). These angels only come down to this earthly realm if they are invited and your space is ready for them. Did you set a space for the sacred guest, did you create a place of beauty for Holiness to hover? We welcome them and ask them to bless us with peace and then we let them depart. They have to go everywhere they are invited, so, they can’t linger. Their blessing though is so magnificent that it imbues the rest of the evening. As angels they can and do move through space and time differently than we do.

This is my favorite blessing, and even if I’m not doing more than just the basic layout, I almost never skip this one. I close my eyes and feel their presence and I am uplifted to the realm of the Holy One, for just a second or a moment, but that’s simply sublime!

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Detail with Angel, sculpture in glass, given to me by a lovely woman who was at Holy Hill for a few days and who was part of a discussion about angels that miraculously occurred and which connected me with the incredible Irish mystic Lorna Byrne who sees and speaks with the angels.

Next we bless the children. This blessing is not just for folks with children, in my way of doing things, but a moment to name all the children in our lives or that we are thinking about. In a traditional setting the parents place their hands over the heads of their children and recite three blessings. One for boys, one for girls, and one for all of the above. I just generally do the all of the above since there are many folks who aren’t identified as one or the other. The prayer said over everyone is the priestly blessing originally offered by the Kohanim, (of which I am one). I like the male and female blessings as well, so sometimes I do all of them and just ask folks to align on the gender spectrum, however they wish, male, female, somewhere in between, or inclusive of it all.

Next is the blessing over wine. This is the VERY modified order of blessings at the table. There are many, many more, but if you do these blessings you are basically covered. The blessing over the wine isn’t just about giving thanks for the wine or grape juice. It’s the blessing that recounts the order of the Holy One’s creating of the universe and ending with the day of rest. It’s a blessing you do while holding a glass of wine, but it’s about acknowledging, thanking and sanctifying the DAY of rest. It’s longer than the other blessings and it’s beautiful!

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Shabbat Table, chez moi in Bayside, wine open and breathing, Challahs covered, salt on the table and right before candle-lighting. Artwork by Thao Le Khac, Joy Dellas, my grandmother Perla Barchilon and some Italian tile maker from a hundred years ago.

After the wine blessing, we do a ritual hand washing with a special two-handled cup. We aren’t cleaning our hands, we are purifying them. It’s a mikveh for our hands. We recite the blessing with our hands raised above our heads after having poured water three times over our right hand and then three times over our left hand and drying them with a clean cloth. The blessing basically says, Blessed are You, Holy One, who has instructed us concerning the raising/lifting/immersing of our hands.

This is crucial. Before we actually eat our meal, we’re almost there (I promise), we raise our hands towards the heavens. I think of this as dipping my hands in holiness and sanctifying them so that they only do good. I want to bring down the honey and love and goodness of the Divine realms and only have my hands be the vessels of that. I never want my hands to be hitting or hurting or tearing or harming others or the earth. No small task, which is why, we need reminding, hence the blessing!

Then we uncover that poor challah, who now is the most rich indeed. We’re hungry and excited, the challah is golden and the light of the sun is gone. We have the glow of the candles and the light reflected off the windows and each other’s eyes and now we give thanks for the miracle of bread. Bread is a miracle. The play of water, salt, yeast, grain and magic that makes it rise is how we too are made. Like the bread, we need to rise. We need time, rest, the right ingredients and balance of earthly elements, sugars and salts and magic to create pockets of air, or lightness so that we are magnificent.

Then we break the bread and dip it in the salt, which represents the promise of the Divine. Salt is a preservative, the original one, way back in the day. It reminds us of the value of commitment, of time moving across millenia, it’s the taste of the moon and stars and the ocean and our sweat and it connects us to our ancestors and life.

Then we eat and share stories and talk for hours. There’s another whole bunch of blessings after the meal….. but I’ll leave those for another day!

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My Papa Jacques Barchilon, enjoying his Shabbat dinner, over a year ago. He’s in Heaven now, where the food and the company far exceed anything I can create here. I miss him so!

Tending to Ending

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My father on Father’s Day, his last awake day, seeing the Pacific Ocean in Trinidad, one of his final wishes.

As I began writing this piece there were four more days of sitting shiva happening in our home. This shiva process has been an incredible blessing for me. I have facilitated and been present for many folks at this time, but never been the one to receive this offering. This last year, my father’s death was always on the table. We all knew it could happen at any time, but his will to live and his longevity, had us all a little fooled.

It’s been hard for my husband and I not to blame ourselves for taking him to the beach on a day that turned cold. It was sunny when we left the house, but by the time we got to Trinidad, the weather was cloudy. Also, it was the once a year fish festival, so everything took a very long time, which really wasn’t good for my father. The excursion to the beach was the equivalent of an aerobic work-out for a man with a weak heart, bound to hasten his heart giving out. I didn’t think this at the time, because my father, even in his slow weakening over the last few months, still seemed so vital and alive. This is not about my guilt, although I have some, which I think is okay. Perhaps he would have died a few days later or we might have had him for a few months more. If I’d been in charge, we certainly would have had more time together in the sun and in our home. I’m not in charge though, the Holy One is. My father’s pull date was never in my control.

It was a good last day of him being aware and enjoying his family and surroundings. As we were walking by the Seascape restaurant on the pier, my father said “wouldn’t it be nice to have some French Fries?” I’d been cooking for days to make a Father’s Day Moroccan dinner for my Papa and my husband, and I knew that French fries would eliminate any chance of my father eating that meal. I motioned for my husband to take him down to the pier and indicated that I’d go procure the fries as a surprise for my Papa (papas for Papa).

It took forever, because the restaurant was packed. I’d never ordered fries from this particular place, but when I finally got them fifteen minutes later they were in a large brown paper sack, that was warm, with grease coming through. Kevin and my father were coming towards me and I handed my chilled father a hot bag of fries. His face lit up, he put his hand in the bag and encountered warmth and grease and took a bite and was so happy. We all tried some and I have to say, I do not think I have ever had better fries in my entire life. I am never going back to this restaurant because they are seriously dangerous and I might only ever eat fries again for the rest of my life. Ethan, Kevin, my father and I just kept reaching our hands into the bag. It was truly a never-ending bag of magic delicious ever-warm fries.

We loaded my father back into the car and decided to take the scenic route home, hoping for some sun over the water. This was a bad choice as well, because the road was bumpy and my dad had to hold onto the handle above his seat to feel secure in some parts and that was effort-full and the sun never came out, so the view was obscured and it was just a long twenty-minute bumpy drive. By the time we got to our home and I got my father in his bed, he was not feeling well and had spiked a fever. This was the first fever he’d had since I took over taking care of him (over 6 months full-time care) and I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

Our beloved friend Ana, one of our care-givers, and her boyfriend, had come over for dinner. Originally my father had wanted to meet the boyfriend and give his approval or not! This was not to be. While my sons, husband and our company were eating the meal I’d prepared, I was with my father, trying to get him comfortable. The Humboldt Hospice nurse and I were on the phone a great deal and I got Tylenol into him and started him on .25 ml of morphine every hour for the first time. Ana, gave me a short break and I had a quick bowl of soup while she held his hand. Then Issac and Ethan took a turn.

I spent that evening giving him doses of morphine every hour or more, but in the morning he was miserable and uncomfortable and told me he was miserable. At this point the nurse was on her way and I asked him to wait a few more minutes before I upped his morphine dosage. I thought perhaps the nurse would advise me to do something different or more. He agreed to wait and our regular nurse Tiffany came to our rescue. She wasn’t supposed to be working that Monday, but the Holy One and the Angels must have worked some magic for us, because she happened to have traded shifts with someone, without knowing at the time, we would need her so desperately.

This was huge for me and my father, because she wasn’t someone he didn’t know. She knew him, us and our situation. She helped me get my father set up better in the bed and told me to increase the amount of morphine from .25ml to .50ml every hour and to let me know if that wasn’t working. It did work and from that point on, my father was not uncomfortable or suffering, that we could tell. She told me to call family and tell them he had a day or a few more hours most likely left. She felt certain that he’d had some kind of episode, and I felt so too, because his hands were shaking a lot and he just never had that happen before. I spoke with my brother in Boulder and told him to come now if he felt he needed to. He and my daughter looked into it, but it was pretty clear things were moving very fast.

So, with the help of my sons, we set up the computer by the bed so he could see them and they could see him and my smart technology savvy sons made it possible for my brother, his partner and my daughter to say goodbye to my father visually. He was still conscious and saw them and could smile, but couldn’t talk. He was lucid until his last two hours and could communicate with me via his mouth. I would ask him if he wanted more morphine or water or chocolate (his favorite thing in the world). “Yes,” would be open mouth, “No,” would be closed mouth, and this worked for us. When the small glass I was using, made by my friend Bryan Raskin of Mirador Glass, no longer worked, he was hydrated throughout his last hours with dropperfulls of coconut water or water. I hate plastic and the feel of the smooth glass was soothing for my father and for me.

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My Papa, Jacques Barchilon, born Jacobo Alberto Cohen, in Casablanca Morocco in 1923. He is pictured here: in his Free French Forces uniform; on the day of his wedding to Judy, the love of his life, at the age of 75. The beautiful woman in the back is his mother Perla Barchilon. The sign translates as “Careful! Mean Dog, Ferocious Master.” My father had a bark, but never a bite and didn’t have a dog, but this sign was on his door. The glass from Mirador that I gave him his last liquids with, his wedding ring, his watch as well as stones to remember him by, (a Jewish thing).

During my long vigil with my father (from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday, early a.m. hours), in the afternoon on Monday, I started getting a Maurice Chevalier song playing in my head. It was from our childhood and the chorus goes: “Paris, je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime.” Which means, Paris I love you, I love you, I love you. Now, Paris is where I was born, where my father had the best times of his life with his beloved wife Judy, may her memory be for a blessing. I changed the lyrics interspersing, “Papa, je t’aime….,” with the Paris part. He loved that and smiled. I told my brother and he found the original record we’d listened to as children and he put that on for my dad, via our technology sharing. My papa loved that.

The computer became a hindrance, since I wanted to be holding my father’s hand and he wasn’t really in a visual mode anymore. So, we switched to speaker phone and for the final hours of my father’s life in a body, my brother, his partner and my daughter were present. My mother and Kenny were also able to say goodbye this way and this was very important and a huge further healing/tikkun. We all sang to him and cried with him and told him we loved him and would miss him, but were ready for him to go. He was pretty lucid until shortly before his dying. The last words he heard was my chanting the Shema to him.

I will write more about my father’s final weeks and his coming to a belief in an after-life, after 95 years of avid and strong atheism. This made his leaving, for me, so much easier, because he was finally less afraid and had a bit of hope about joining his wife and daughter, my sister Paula. He took his final breaths in the arms of myself and my son Ethan, with our family present for him across many miles via technology that was truly a gift.

Jacobo Alberto HaCohen, (name at his birth), Jack Lawrence (nom de guerre, inspired by his favorite author of the time D.H. Lawrence, so the Nazi’s wouldn’t know he was a Jew, in case he was caught), Jacques Barchilon (American name), Jacov ben Perla v’Haim (Hebrew name) lived 95 full, intense, painful and glorious years from 1923 to 2018, he will be missed.

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From my father’s home, which I brought back with me to my home, and which exactly describes what he received from my brother and me. “Quand un père chéri, glacé par la viellesse, Reçoit de ses enfants les soins les plus touchans, Il voit le sombre hiver s’écouler sans tristesse, Et s’endori attendri dans leurs bras caressans.” When a beloved father, made brittle and hard by old age, receives from his children the most tender and touching care, He sees the somber winter of his life evaporating without sadness and falls asleep attended by their caressing arms.

 

 

 

Hooray, Heaven-Driven and Heading Home to my Honey and my Hearth

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My Merrily Blooms in May rose from my Rosey friend Theresa J. May

My father has agreed to move to our home in California!!!! I can be at my own hearth and help him and have all the support I need. It’s taken a year of my life and my brother’s life and our families’ lives. It has been extremely trying and deeply painful, but more triumphant and terrific than I could ever have imagined. Caring for all the parties in this story, including myself, has taken all of my being. Really, like the rose pictured above, which by the way is the size of a pecan pie, and smells like heaven, there are layers and layers to something this beautiful and there are thorns as well!

If it’s in the cards and written in the stars and with the will of the Divine we will move my father to our home in California. Since last March I have been here most of the time and home very little. It’s been very hard for me to be away from my husband and my home. It’s also been what needed to happen to help my father recover from his heart-attacks and subsequent heart issues and the death of his beloved wife Judy.

“A person, her days are like grass, She blossoms like a flower of a field. Then a wind passes, V’EINENU, and it is all gone, nothing! Her place on earth no longer knows her. But Havaya’s love stretches from world to world, the Holy One’s sovereignty embraces all life.” ~Psalm 103: 15-19  Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s translation

It appears that my father is not in danger of dying anytime soon, in terms of how he seems to my brother and me. The  Denver Hospice folks are not so sure. My father is better than he has been in months. We have found the right cocktail of different medications given throughout the day along with an oxygen machine. He still uses his walker some part of every day. He sleeps a great deal of the time but is also awake and telling stories and getting his affairs in order. He has been given three choices.

  1. Move in with Kevin and me in Bayside.
  2. Stay in his apartment with care-givers 6 days a week and Paul one day a week.
  3. Go into a nursing home in Boulder with Paul and Kathryn visiting many times a week.

He is choosing to move in with Kevin and I. He is talking with Kevin regularly and there is a growing sense of him having something to look forward to. Ethan will be home for the summer and will help spell me when I need a break and I’ll hire a care-giver as well. The tricky part will be getting him to our home. Paul and I and the hospice team are working out the details so as to minimize the trauma to my father on his body. He has a medical death sentence, he is not getting better, but he may defy the odds and the statistics which do not account for the kind of care my father has been getting. The food, the massages, the love, the time spent in silence and also the stubborn strong Barchilon/Cohen genetic make-up are just not what most folks at this stage in their lives have.

My grandfather Jaimé, lived to almost a hundred and two. My great-grandfather, the Rabbi of Tangiers, Aaron Cohen lived to be a hundred and four. My father has longevity in his bones.

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Aaron Cohen, Rabbi of Tangiers, my Great Grandfather

There is no way to predict when my father will cross the river Jordan and leave this earth. I can no longer stay in his home caring for him indefinitely, the toll on my body and heart is just too great.

The current plan is that I will head home to California the first week in May. My friend and sister, by choice and love, Terret will fly from Boston to Denver to help me pack up the Xterra and drive it back to Arcata. Terret and my father have a sweet relationship, when I moved away, before he found Judy, he would take her out to dinner regularly. She was my proxy, while she lived in Boulder spending time with him.

Terret will spend two days here in Denver with us and then we will drive to Boulder and I will say goodbye to my mother and Kenny, who are now in Boulder to take up residence at their new condo at the Peloton. They will spend a few months of every year here and perhaps move back to Boulder. My brother Paul and I have been getting the space ready for them, with furniture and stereo systems and they arrived to a mostly furnished home. We will fête Kenny (my other beloved father/beau-père) who will be turning 70 on April 30th.

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My mother Helen Redman and Kenny Weissberg, picture taken by his sister Ellen.

It will take Terret and me three to four days to drive back. My friend and another one of my Holy sisters by love, Tara has already been in touch with the Humboldt Hospice.  When I get home, I’ll start getting the back bedroom and our house ready for Dad and making our home accessible and safe for him. My brother will fly with Dad in early June with a portable oxygen machine from Denver to Sacramento. I will drive down to meet them and we will go to a hotel overnight and let Dad rest there. The next day, we will get on the road and drive two or three hours more and stay at a hotel again, unless Dad is up for another three hours of driving and then we will be HOME!

On a spiritual/emotional/liminal note, I have a sense of how hard it is to leave a body. I’ve spent a great deal of time with folks leaving their bodies in my time as the chair of our Hevra Kadisha/Sacred/Burial society. Please see my piece Encountering Death Consciously if you haven’t already. I’ve attended many bedsides and witnessed folks crossing. It is rarely easy for a person to disengage from the shell/vessel of their bodies.

It takes time and some interesting uniquely personal set of circumstances for each person to be finished with their bodies.

Since my father has no religious beliefs, of any kind, it’s pretty much the end for him, like stepping off a cliff and knowing that’s final. I think moving to our home is sort of a gentle step towards death, a letting go of Judy, of their home, of his life as a professor of French for over 35 years at CU, of all his Free French Forces resistance books and posters and all the stuff of his 95 years of life.

This is where he met and married my mother, this is where my sister died, this is where my brother was born, this is where he was divorced, this is where he worked and lived and where he got together with Judy and married her and enjoyed almost 20 years of love with her. This is where she died and where he is mourning her actively.

Our home is none of those things. It’s full of music, books and great art and the best part is Kevin (who my father, like me, adores). He will be able to sit on my deck and enjoy the flowers and the sunshine and the beauty of the outdoors. He will be closer to the sky and the earth and to a place of expansiveness and grace. So, his coming to us, is like a step away from his life, but not the final one, it’s the next one, bringing him closer to the step out of his body.

Please hold him, my brother and me in your thoughts and prayers as we navigate the next two months of work to make this happen. My father will have been six months with Denver Hospice by May. The statistics for his condition, age and situation say he should be dead very soon. As Mark Twain said though: “There’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.”

We just have no idea what will unfold, but we’re making plans for a shift and hope it will be a gentle bridge to a time of sunshine, Ethan playing Chopin and Bach on the piano for him, Kevin having intellectual conversations with him and telling him jokes, flowers blooming, time on our deck with the birds and my beloved Redwood Tree standing sentinel over Papa and reminding him of all that is beautiful and good and of course, lots of artichokes!

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Chez Papa with my brother Paul Barchilon and his partner Kathryn Taylor. Photo by my cousin Dan Levy.

While my father and I spend a great deal of time in silence, his preference, there are times when he wants to wax philosophical.  I’m sharing teachings with him from the Buddhist tradition, the Jewish tradition and many others. Lovely and meaningful conversations are ensuing and unfolding around all of this.

Here’s one of the teachings from a Buddhist perspective that we read together.

37 Practices: Verse 4

“You will separate from long-time friends and relatives. You will leave behind the wealth you worked to build up. The Guest, your consciousness, will move from the inn, your body. Give up your life—this is the practice of a bodhisattva” ~Tokme Zongpo

“Tokme Zongpo was a 14th century Tibetan monk. After serving as abbot of his monastery, he retreated for 20 years and wrote these 37 practices of a Bodhisattva, seen by many as the core of Mahayana Buddhism.” ~Rabbi Tirzah Firestone

This teaching comes from the materials that were part of a Shabbaton/Weekend intensive I attended, called: (Lighting the Way in a Dark World The Tzaddik and the Bodhisattva). This workshop was given by one of my dear friends, and teachers Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  My father remarked that the teachings were very interesting and beautiful. No more comment has been made about them, but I know he is processing slowly all of these moments we share. One of the teachings from the weekend really moved me profoundly and my favorite line is at the end.

“He (Rabbi Akiva, born 20 CE) used to say: Everything is given on loan. And a net is spread out over all that is alive. The store is open and the storekeeper extends credit; the ledger is open and the hand writes, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow. And the collectors go round every day and exact payment, with or without our knowledge. And they do not act capriciously; their judgments are correct. And everything is prepared for the banquet.” ~Mishneh Avot/Pirkei Avot:

“Commentary: Life is on loan. Receive all that is given, and do not pretend to choice or ownership. You are a knot of God’s infinitely knotted net, never apart from and always a part of the One Who Is All. Reality allows you to do as you will, for good and for bad, and every deed has its consequence.”

~Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Many folks no longer have any relationship to Holiness or any beliefs or spiritual practices, and my father is in that category. This makes me very sad for all the suffering and fear he and others endure around so many things. This teaching by Rabbi Akiva, is one that speaks to my core. I know that everything is being prepared for the banquet. One of my ways of serving the Divine is to try to prepare a banquet for folks now, to offer them beauty, delicious food, kindness, compassion and spaciousness. I do this because I want to help create a pathway, in all those I encounter, to remind them that Olam Ha Ba/ the World to Come is real. Our time here on this earth is an opportunity to practice our table manners for the glorious banquet on the other side of this life.

 

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The Banquet I prepared for the Shechinah, every Shabbat,  in Ireland when I was on my silent, solitary retreat.

 

Sharing Stories, Settling Down, Sorting, Sifting and Slowly Letting Go.

Morocco Street by Perla
Painting of Moroccan street scene by Perla Barchilon, mother of José, Arthur, Lili, Jacques and Maurice, my paternal grandmother. The colors here are not as bright and vibrant as the painting itself.

 

“I’m depressed, Nicole and I have many regrets.”

“Well, Papa, that’s understandable. You are slowly dying and your body is getting weaker every day. This is not easy or pleasant and your mind is completely aware of this slow degradation of your body. Your beloved wife died a few months ago; you have lots of reasons to be sad.  I think you are incredibly courageous to be navigating this time the way you are. I wish there was more I could do to help you feel better. Would talking about your regrets be helpful? I’m here if you want to share.”

And then my father started to tell me about his deepest regrets and how badly he feels and what a failure he was with certain people. He mentioned how he behaved towards his mother. This was his first statement of regret. My father has never said one nice word about his mother in the entire time I’ve been alive. Every story about her is negative and puts her in a bad light. So, for him to say, he felt badly about how he treated her, is pretty monumental. I feel waves of energy and spirits are moving through the space as my father shares. It’s a timeless and powerful moment. I also need to mention that my father regularly shares that I am like his mother, especially around how much food I prepare and eat, but unlike his mother I do not force him to eat anything.

I ask him about what he regrets in terms of his behavior towards his mother, my grandmother Perla. He says he wasn’t empathetic to her and didn’t have empathy towards her situation. I asked him if he’d ever apologized to her and he said he had and that  she had told him: “You never need to apologize to a mother.”

Perla Posing
Perla, age sixteen or seventeen, Morocco right around the time she married my Gran-papa, around the turn of the century.

This is the first remotely loving story my father has ever told me about his mother. I can see her dismissing my father’s apology with this statement in one way and also being very moved by it. My grandmother, Perla Barchilon y Cohen was an amazing woman, but she wasn’t the mother my father wanted or needed. Nevertheless, he has a portrait of her in a place of prominence that my mother did of her, when she came to Paris for my birth over 54 years ago.

We spoke more about his mother and I asked him if Perla had ever been empathetic or sensitive to him, if she had taught him how to be kind and empathetic? He said “No,” and I pointed out that he didn’t have any role models growing up about how to be the way he wishes he had been. I told him I was amazed at his empathy and how he was still growing and working on improving himself. We spoke about how Judy, May her memory be for a Blessing, was the person who finally taught him the empathy he wanted to have. She showed him how to be kinder and to think about the feelings of others more. He agreed with me about this and it made him sad to talk about Judy.  Perhaps we will revisit this mother regret, but I hope that he feels freer to let this one go now.

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Perla Barchilon, age seventeen probably.  At the age of sixteen, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé Cohen (Spanish version of  the Hebrew name Chaim). He was 20. She had five sons and was a wonderful painter in Morocco in the early part of the last century. She lived through World War II in Morocco and her artwork was celebrated and respected for over fifty years. She was a Jewish woman in a Muslim country and she was a painter. I remember her still painting when I was a little girl in Morocco. She was a very old woman at that point in her seventies, which now that I’m 54 doesn’t seem that old to me. She was born around 1898 and died in 1988.

I am in this very complex place of trying to comfort my father in any kind of way that works for him. I’m trying to balance my inclination to impart, share,  and perhaps somehow convince, through my touch and my heart and my presence, the tremendous relationship to Holiness and to Hope that is possible for my father. I don’t want him to be sad, depressed, afraid or certain that his end is an end. He has no belief in any spiritual system at all.

Whereas, I am walking into and out of Olam Ha Bah and the Angelic and Supernal Realms often. I feel these energies surrounding my father and I’m wanting him to feel the presence of the Divine and to know that he will be safe, at peace and not suffering after he dies. This is my need. My father is a devout Atheist. He maintains there is no such thing as a soul, so he doesn’t have one and there won’t be any Heaven for him.

In the Jewish tradition, we have a final confession as part of the dying process. We didn’t borrow this from the Catholics, they probably got the whole idea from us! Our confession is very different though. It is called a Viddui and is said by someone when they are on their deathbed. It is a general request for forgiveness for all wrongdoings in our lives and a listing of those wrongs. It also has a clause/caveat that states, we might not be dying, a miracle could happen and we might recover, but we still want to be clear now. I love the language of this, asking for forgiveness, stating our wrongs and then saying, we might get better, who knows? This might not be a final confession after all.

In addition to the final confession, there are daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycles of self-scrutiny, correction, confession of wrongs to the person one has wronged, making amends and attending to the patterns that might be causing us to make these errors. We’re all about confession, it just doesn’t happen in a box with a priest and a screen.

I keep looking for opportunities for my papa and I to cross the bridge between my world and his. I don’t need him to change or believe, I just want him not to be in pain or distress, physical or emotional. If there is something I can offer to ease his suffering, than I want to do it. He appreciates my touch, my cooking, my massages and my taking care of his daily and nightly needs. He is grateful for my care and the care of my brother Paul and the caregivers we have working with us.

Since I’ve been living with him in his home in Denver, there have been many moments of storytelling and he has asked me to query him and volunteered to share whatever stories or ideas with me, with my brother, and with others who want to know more. How can I ever know all that he wants to share or even what questions to ask? I think I know my father pretty well and most of his life’s stories have been written down or lived together or shared. I think he is not a mystery to me. I am so wrong about that.

I ask my father about his dreams in the morning. I ask him about his sadness and if he wants to talk about anything, when he volunteers that he is sad.

I ask him what he wants for breakfast and how long I should wait before checking on him when he is in the bathroom. I ask him what number heat setting he wants on the heating pad and I ask him if there is anything I can do to make him more comfortable. His reply is usually, “Make me forty years younger and smile.”

His dream the other day, the one he remembered to tell me, went like this:

“I dreamed I was in the home of a very famous man, you will know who he is, Freud. I was rearranging the furniture in his house.” Another dream had been that he was in NY, and there was a starving, lonely cold child on the street and he was with Eloise (the famous NY storybook character who lives in a hotel). She was talking to someone about how much money should be given to this girl and my father and she agreed that it should be $100,000.00. What’s interesting about this dream is that he didn’t remember the name of Eloise, but he remembered that his niece Coco loved this character and so I suggested we call her and ask her if she remembered the name of the NY storybook character. Just as we reached Coco, Papa, said “Eloise!”

His mental acuity stuns me, and I truly feel at half his capacity. I can’t remember things from my childhood or my children’s childhoods, the way my father remembers his niece’s favorite storybook from over fifty years ago. His memory is a golden mine of treasures and I don’t think my brother and I will ever plumb its depths.

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For now, though, I am grateful for my technology that is allowing me to record his stories when he wants that done. Every tale he tells is a golden offering that will be of value to me and to all of our family.

I hope I have the presence of mind and the loving care and support my father has when I am leaving this world. We all deserve to be with those who love us and where we are comfortable, surrounded by our art and what makes us feel at home; to be safe and to suffer as little as possible.

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Portraits of Perla and my brother Paul Barchilon by my mother Helen Redman, hanging on the wall with paintings by Perla. Also, a Moroccan print of my brother’s in the bottom corner.

 

 

 

 

Having Arrived…

Shabbat Flowers.
Shabbat table and flowers on Paul Barchilon’s  coaster in the home of my father.

It has taken me a few weeks to actually get here. Here being Denver, Colorado in the condominium of my father and his wife Judy, may her memory be for a blessing. I was grieving leaving my life and my husband, my garden, the Redwood tree who is my friend off my deck, my bed, my community and so many other parts of where I live.

But now, Here I am, Hee Nay Nee, הנני

I am fully here and arrived in Denver. Even though I moved here in mid-December, it has taken me a little while to actually get and BE here. I was going through the motions; getting the meals cooked, the laundry done and attending to my father’s needs just barely. I say just barely because my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve been preparing for this time, for years, literally over 15 or more. I’ve known that there would be a brief moment between raising children and my needing to help care for my father, my mother, my beau-père and my mother- in-love. That time has arrived and regardless of preparing for it, the actual transition to it, has been, like all transitions, not so easy.

I felt so bad, not being happy to be here, not being happy to serve. In my piece S.O.S (Surrendered Open Serving)  I wrote about serving the Holy One with Joy. This work is serving the Holy One, while it is also serving my father, my family and myself. Doing it with joy, is the part that I wasn’t able to just swing into. I needed to grieve not being with my husband. He is more than my mate in this life. He’s my life-line and being physically near him and with him nourishes my soul and my cells in ways that are central to who I am and how I do all that I do. He’s the silent, behind the scenes, invisible partner in everything I do.

So, the adjustment has taken a little bit of time. Now, when I take my Shabbat break from my father for the two days I have off, I start to miss him and feel pulled back to him. He and I have formed a new bond, similar to the one that we formed when our roles were reversed and I was the infant with huge physical needs unable to meet them by myself. It’s such an interesting pendulum swing and one that so many folks are fearful of.

I am not afraid of being needy or not in control. I am prepared for it and expect it. I also don’t think it’s so terrible to lose control. Part of why I am less reticent than others has to do with my fundamental Emunah/Trust in the Holy One and in the goodness of folks in my life and in the world in general. I also have less fear than most people about what is on the other side. And I believe it’s our calling, all of us, in smaller and larger ways to care for one another on this planet and also for the planet. Some folks will be care-givers of the earth, or a water-shed or a species of frog. Some folks will stand guard over a forest or a flower or a polar bear. Some of us will care for wounded soldiers or special needs children or adults. Some of us will cultivate awareness in art and music and bring comfort or a wake-up call to others. Whatever ways we find to listen and honor the voice of caring in our lives, it is real and present and of value.

As I spend this truly precious time with my father, he is weak, not-well, tired, sad, frustrated about his bodily functions and process and also very much mentally present. He wants to share stories and talk about hard things in his life. He asked me to record him recounting the few days leading up to and the day of my sister Paula’s death. She died at the age of 21 months old, over 54 years ago now. He wanted to share this video with my mother. The two of them have now talked about this time. This is something they never had done and it has been painful, intense and beautiful all at the same time.

To me, it is a huge tikkun/healing. It’s also been that for my parents. It’s never too late to have healing in a relationship or in a fraught situation. My mother and my father, despite all the territory in their past, have found their way back to a very tender place with each other. A place (my sister’s death) that they are closest to and can share feelings that no one else can. Across the 48 years since they’ve been together, this time and this desire on my father’s part and my mother’s willingness to listen and attend to all of this with caring and compassion has created a bridge. That bridge serves everyone in my family and most especially me.

My sister Paula’s death has colored every facet of my life. She’s been very present for me recently. I’ve been feeling her suffering and confusion at being alone, or what I perceive as those feelings, as my father and mother re-live the specific details of her tragic death. Today, I will go to her grave and sing her some songs. Her grave is a very unique and special one that many folks recognize who live here in Boulder. I will honor her, as I have my whole life, by trying to live my life with more gusto and more aliveness, with a double dose of the blending of my mother and father and all that this shared combination of heritage and story means as it flows through my veins and muscles and heart.

 

 

The front and back views of my sister Paula’s grave marker, which was commissioned by my parents and made by DeWain Valentine. The rocks are traditional Jewish offerings that I bring when I visit to commemorate my presence and as place-holders for my memory being as long as a stone’s for her.

The other night at Shabbat in the basement of Rabbi Marc Soloway of Bonai Shalom, we said the Mourner’s Kaddish for a thirteen year old boy who died last week. Children dying is terrible and not how we want our lives or the lives of those we cherish to unfold. Death is just not something we can ever overcome or get away from. It’s not fair, it’s not easy, it’s not fine or pretty or simple. We do all kinds of things to try to wrap it up that way, but the reality of it is anything but wrapped up neat. In the Jewish tradition, we have space, communal space, at every prayer service, for all those grieving to be supported, to name their beloveds and their pain.

This naming doesn’t fix the wound, but it gives us a container, a shared vessel for our hurt to be in, and it helps us feel less alone in our most tender and broken times.

It takes all my resources to show up for this dying time with my father and with others as well. I have very little energy for conversations or interactions with folks, because all of me has to be present now for these precious moments with my father, my brother, my mother and my family. It takes all of me to hold the space as we walk on the bridge between this life of my father’s here and now and the destination he is moving towards. It takes all of me to stay present for the feelings I have about when he will no longer be in a body here with us to tell stories to, or enjoy an artichoke with, or laugh at something silly or remark on something so intelligently that I feel like a total idiot in comparison. My father’s intellectual capacity far out-shines most folks I’ve met. He is still so sharp in his observations and thoughts. I’ll miss that, I’ll miss it a lot.

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Papa et moi.

So now the river of tears flows, as it can only flow when I have some space and time to be by myself and not be having to attend to his needs or anyone else’s. I’m very grateful for my time off, even though I’m acutely aware that every minute I’m away is one less minute I will have with him………forever.

Being present for what is going on in my life is one of the ways I honor the Holy One and my family and the planet. I cannot know when my life will be taken. I cannot know when my father will leave or my husband or a beloved friend or my children. I pray I won’t have to navigate losing a child, as my parents have, and as so many mothers and fathers in history have had to, but I cannot know.

So, every day I hold my family in my heart, in my prayers and I endeavor to honor them. I do this with my friends and my community as well. Mostly right now though, I’m just right here, tending to my father as he falls further from this realm. I hope to help ease his landing on the other side as best I can. I’m not alone in that. My brother and my children have shown up in various ways, as have some of my father’s nieces, nephews and friends to remind him of how precious he is and how much he is appreciated and loved.

What more can any of us do for those we love?

Papa Painting
“Dad wanted to help! He is 94, and doing hospice at home. My sister and I are taking care of him. He has seen me painting tiles non-stop for my big commission, and today he asked if he could help. Took me a little extra time to clean his work, but he was just barely able to do it. He made three tiles. I told him you never know, someone could dig up his tile in 10,000 years. He liked that!” Paul Barchilon