Tag Archives: Perla Barchilon

A Woman Awash

My Matrilineal Mothers, My great, great grandmother celebrating her 100th birthday

This picture inspires me, every day. I look at the faces of these Eastern European Jewish women, these warrior women, who endured, or whose progeny endured pogroms, violence, poverty, plagues, the Shoah, and who knows what else. They not only endured it, some of them survived to pray and to make family, connections, friendships, partnerships and eventually me and my children. We are the seedlets from their wombs. I love their strong proud faces, their soft smiles and the looks of endurance, the crags carved into their faces. And, and…none of them are a size four! All of the women pictured here are zaftig, even the birthday girl/woman/crone. These were women of girth and ground. Women who stood their ground and who worked and lived hard. This is my lineage.

Perla Barchilon, age 19 perhaps, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé at the age of 16. He was 20. She had five sons, who lived, and was a painter in Morocco. She’s in my blood as well as my children’s.

I have this Sephardic lineage running through me from the line of my father and his family. That lineage is more exalted and wealthy, and this line comes with art and rich stories. I know more about the men in this lineage. But I knew my grandmother Perla bat Doña Aicha Bendavid v’ Don José Barchilon, zichrona l’vracha, and her artwork is all over my home. My grandfather Chaim or Jaimé Cohen ben Don Aaron Cohen v’ Dona Sol de Ohana, z”l was the patriarch of my life and in their Moroccan home I learned to cook, to appreciate rich colors, smells and the life of warmth and passion that Morocco is. That lineage flows through my blood and I consider myself more Moroccan than any other nationality. My father’s grandfather was the head Rabbi of Tangier.

The Eastern corner/wall of my sanctuary/cave/meditation room, with a painting by Perla bat Aicha, z’l, of a Morrocan street.

Somehow, I’m here/Hi Ney Ni. I hope I make it to 100 and have grandchildren or great grandchildren standing behind me and a giant cake full of candles, like the matriarch above. I’ll be very ready to go at that point, but my death date or pull date, as I like to call it, is in the hands of the Divine. While I’m here on this earth, there’s lots and lots to do. There is also so much information, data, waves of images and messages, emails, texts and Instagram posts, tweets, alerts, podcasts, zoom chats, protests to attend, meals to cook, medicines to make and folks to help die and folks to help heal and…..it goes on.

As Rabbi Tarfon z”l who lived and died in the first century CE says:

You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future.

from Pirkei Avot a text written down based on oral teachings in the first century B.C.E.

So, I’m not obligated to finish this work, but I am not free to desist from it either. This is not just my mantra, it is the mantra of most of the hardworking, justice seeking, world healing folks I love and connect with. The English translation here is not reflective of the feeling that the Hebrew has or the poetry of the teaching.

The future quoted here is Olam Ha Ba in Hebrew. This translates more closely as The World to Come, which could be tomorrow or in a thousand years. It’s in the hands of the Creator or you, what the World to Come is, it’s a verb form, a world that is coming, it’s not yet here, but it’s on the way. If you are able you can feel it, or sense it. The veil between this world/Olam Ha Zeh and Olam Ha Ba is very thin for some of us.

I long for Olam Ha Ba, sometimes with such an ache in my being that the tears and sobs flow out of me for hours. There’s just too much damn suffering, ugliness, meanness and stupidity down here on this planet for me to bear sometimes. And yet, bear it I must. I cannot bear it though, if I watch the news or listen to the news or imbibe the news in any form currently available.

I’m afraid I’m going to be burned at the stake for admitting that I do not participate in the news cycle. I don’t own a television, I don’t stream CNN live or watch the Trevor Noah Show or listen to NPR or Rachel Maddow or NBC, CBS, BBC, etc… you get my point. I get plenty of news from all of the people in my life who share tidbits with me. I generally know about something big within hours of it happening. Sometimes a day will go by before whatever “news” crisis, on the planet folks are spinning about, circles around and reaches me. I do not let the currents of world events, as reported on by others, who often wish for me to be hooked by their versions of the story, dictate my direction or life.

That being said, there is a trusted source of information that I am completely involved in. That makom/source is my cellular core knowing. This knowing will literally take me down to the ground when there are mass deaths or huge traumas on the planet. I have an internal weather vane that is tuned to certain frequencies. In the last two years, I’ve gone to ground in a huge way, before the news informed the world of these horrors. When Covid hit this world in a big way, I was already in a cave of my own making. I curled up in a ball, like a fox or a bear and I hibernated. I do this when I need to replenish or when the waves of the world hit me like a tsunami.

I could barely get out of bed for months, not because I was physically sick, but because the pain of the thousands of people dying in fear and alone was a tidal wave for me. I’m very sensitive, not really the right word, to death, my internal channel is tuned to the other side. When there are mass events of death, I feel it, not because I’m watching the news coverage about it, because I don’t do that, but because I’m just wired that way. I was bone deep tired and unable to rise up. I was sheltering in place before that was actually called for.

So, I went to ground, curled up in my cave/bedroom. I emerged very infrequently to eat an apple or take a bath. My husband had to fend for himself mostly. He’s used to my weird and wild ways. He would lie down next to me and tell me he loved me and ask what he could do, if anything. Mostly, he just accepted me and loved me. He is an Agnostic and doesn’t believe in a Divine Creator and cannot comprehend 98% of what I tell him I am experiencing. Miraculously, he doesn’t need to understand me, or take me apart and make sense of me, to love me. He’s just wired that way, wired to love me and I’m wired to love him and it works, amazingly well.

My mensch and I, photo taken by my Beau-Pere Kenny’s very talented sister Ellen Weissberg Whyte.

When I touch my man or am held by him, all my cells align and take a kind of deep breath. It’s a truly profound experience for me and it still happens to this day, 33 years since we first kissed, I feel the current of wholeness course through my body. It makes my toes curl, my heart race. I am giddy and soothed all at the same time.

There’s nothing subtle or mild about me or how I feel, love, pray, and live. I’m a lot to handle and as the husband of a dear friend of mine once said about me. “Jeez, could you have some f—–g enthusiasm already!” Which I translated as the usual, you’re just TOO MUCH!

And, I am too much, for a lot of folks, which isn’t really important, because I’m used to that now and I’m in really good company…but back to my cave. I didn’t share the depth of what was going on for me with anyone besides my husband. A few folks were worried about me since they weren’t seeing my posts and I was generally absent from so many activities online and elsewhere. Even when I’m in my cave, I still take care of what has to be taken care of, what is mine to take care of, like my parents and my children. Or when someone’s son in my community was murdered and they needed support to get their son’s body washed and prepared for burial, according to Jewish tradition. They needed to witness and lovingly wrap their beloved in a shroud with prayers during Covid. Everybody worries about you and thinks you’re crazy for extending yourself and endangering yourself to make that happen. But, this is exactly the kind of thing that pulls me, like a magnet from underneath the covers or the depths of my sanctuary cave. The call to serve and to do what is mine, not someone else’s to do.

The other call that came in, when I was deep in the depths of the pain of the world, was when George Floyd, z”l, was murdered. It was like an electric shock to my system and I just jumped out of my bed and started cooking and making medicines and cleaning and doing everything I could, in what I like to call Full-On-Nicole fashion. Even though the pain was searing, the call to make kindness alive and to help folks feel heard and seen and loved during this time of trauma and exposition of the true nature of our society, was stronger than the need to be curled up feeling the anguish. For me, the call came in and it came in loud and strong and clear.

George Floyd , zichrono l’vracha, by Marjorie Feldman, framed by Howard Feldman

I didn’t see the death of this man on the news. I felt it in my bones. I am a woman awash with the world’s doings. Life on this planet, the life of this planet is not something I am separated from, none of us are. When there is harm or grace, we all feel it. Whether it is a slight blip in our heart-beat or it takes us down to the ground, or out to our studios, or into the streets, we are all part of the same story.

In my tradition we say a prayer called the Shema, we say it three times a day. It cannot be completely translated. It’s a call to being and a chant and a reminder. The prayer itself is just a few words, but it is followed by a few paragraphs of prayers reminding us that if we adhere to this teaching the rain will fall in its season and the cattle will be happy and all will align, but if we fail to head this call and we worship idols (like the television, entertainment industry, sports games, the stock market or the Kardashians) the rain won’t fall in its season and there will be famine, plague and basically consequences to our NOT taking care of each other and the planet. This is not the Holy One cursing us, this is us cursing ourselves, causing the damage by not heeding the call of the Shema.

Listen, Hear, All you tribe of Israel, all you who wrestle with the Divine, the idea of the Divine, Hear this, all of you who struggle to make the world a place of decency and kindness, who stumble and fall down, who make mistakes, but get back up again, and again, listen you tribe of humans of all colors and religions and creeds and genders,

WE ARE ALL ONE!

We are all One, the Divinity is All One, is all encompassing, is everywhere at all times, holding us, watching us, shepherding us, rooting for us, wailing for us and with us as we stumble and fumble about. The Creator is with us and is through us and is us.

This call to Listen, to Hear, which implies you are directing yourself towards something perhaps not always loud or obvious, something that requires your active attention; this is something that I cannot ignore. I’ve always been a being who feels the blood trickle down my leg when the person next to me falls down and the skin on their leg cracks open, I get this in my body, it’s not an idea in my head, it literally fills my head and body like a gong sounding through my whole being.

I am awash in the feelings of this world and often of the next world as well. Sometimes folks who’ve crossed over are looking for support or help, especially if they died suddenly or violently, or they just have something they need to communicate before they move on to their next bathing of light, where they can be awash in the Creator’s love for them. Sometimes folks here on this earth are in so much pain it leaps out of their bodies and finds its way to me.

So, crazy as this makes me look and sound to those of you in the world who cannot see the dead moving through the room, like a waft of steam rising from a tea cup, or who don’t recognize the connections between things as being all part of some giant and unwinding narrative we are players in, I am very much affirming, again and again, that I am a woman awash in all of this.

Why do I need to assert this? There are many reasons, but the strongest call right now has to do with wanting to witness for folks that you can be fully awake, aware, and open, and also closed, quiet and taking care of yourself. There is no one way to serve. Maybe you need to go to ground, take a sabbatical or a break or just crawl under the covers for a week or months. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed or mentally ill. It might just mean you are a human feeling the throbbing heart of our times and needing to be with all of what that is. Or maybe you do better going to a rally or a protest or writing hundreds of postcards or keeping track of all the lies and stories on the screens so that you can be a witness to what is actually being said. As long as it doesn’t poison you and make you forget how to enjoy the buds on the trees or the way the Holy One paints the sky each night, or the smile of your beloved, or just that we’re all in this together, imbibe away.

We’re most of us in good, good, really good company. We all have work to do that is uniquely ours. I hope you find your way through and into the places you need to be in and that you notice when your engagement with the “news” takes you away from loving, living and giving.

The real news is this, we are here on this earth for an eye-blink, even if we live to be a hundred years old, and while we are here, we have a task to continue working on, the work of making the world a better reflection of the love, kindness, intelligence, justice, harmony and Oneness it was meant to be and it is becoming, even if we cannot see its emergence yet.

My Mother’s mother Isabelle, bat Minnie, zichronah livracha, May her Memory be for a Blessing, my mother Helen Redman and little baby me. The mothers’ blessings passing through me back to the original Mother of us All, a long line and an amazing legacy of women successfully giving birth and surviving to make it to this moment and this time. I’m so grateful to all those who have come before me. May I live up to my lineage.

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.

220px-Eloise_book_cover

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.