Love, Inshallah reviews a beautiful collection of poetry from poet, mother and rabbi, Rachel Barenblat. In her fourth poetry collection, Waiting To Unfold (April 2013, Phoenicia Publishing), Rabbi Barenblat documents her pregnancy and the first year of her son’s life through her powerful voice, unfurling the jubilations and challenges of motherhood.
A perfect Mother’s Day gift – purchase your copy, here!
Love, Inshallah (LA): You are a writer, a poet, and a Velveteen Rabbi. Tell us a little bit about the link between creativity and a woman’s spirituality. Why is it important to write/speak/create art?
Rachel Barenblat (RB): For me, creativity is a tremendous spiritual gift. I’ve learned over the years that I am most spiritually healthy when I’m creating, which usually means writing poems. Having a regular writing practice gives me a creative outlet. And having a regular prayer practice gives me a spiritual outlet, too.
Some years ago, in my early 30s, I suffered from a few strokes, and the way I made it through that adventure (which was scary and unfamiliar) was through writing poems, and through working with my spiritual director on the spiritual qualities I needed most. For me, the two — writing and spiritual life — are deeply interconnected.
Jewish tradition says that God spoke the world into being, and that God continues to speak the world into being now. There’s a connection between words and creation, between words and life. When I write poems, I feel as though I’m connected with God — my words also create worlds, though on a much smaller scale! And when I became a mother, I felt a new kind of connection with God as the Parent of all creation.
LA: In Waiting To Unfold, you write about pregnancy, the birth of your son, and parenting during that first year. One day, he will go back and read this. Do you envision this moment and his response?
RB: It’s strange and wonderful to think of our son someday being old enough to read these poems. I hope that when he reads them, he sees them as a labor of love — and I hope he sees that even when I was struggling with postpartum depression, my love for him was always present and always real.
The title comes from one of the poems in the book — “Belief,” which speaks about my belief in redemption: belief that spring would comes after that long winter, and that the antidepressants would restore to me the laughter and the sense of self I remembered from my life before. That phrase, waiting to unfold, felt to me like a metaphor for so many things: the embryo curled inside the uterus, a plant curled inside a seed, my heart.
LA: You wrote one poem a week during that first year. How did you manage that? Were the creative juices right there at the surface, or did you have to dig at times?
RB: In retrospect I can hardly believe I managed that. (Though I’m grateful that I did; I don’t think I would remember this many details of those first months otherwise!) In the beginning, the creative juices were right there at the surface. I felt as though I was overflowing: with emotion, with joy, with fear, with milk — overflowing in every possible way! The first couple of poems came to me pretty easily. And once I’d started the habit, I was determined to stick with it. I had defined myself as a poet for many years — especially since my MFA at Bennington, in ’99 — and in that overwhelming transition into motherhood, I needed something from my “old life” to cling to.
There were definitely times when I struggled to write the poems. I remember writing some poems standing up, with my laptop on the counter, with the baby wrapped close to my chest in a moby wrap, as I swung my body back and forth like a pendulum. As long as I kept moving, he would nap, and as long as he napped, I could write. But I don’t think I ever struggled to find subject matter. There were always things to notice, about my experience of learning to be his mother.
LA: How has writing about the motherhood experience altered the way you see yourself as a Jewish woman, a Rabbi, and a writer?
RB: I came out of that first year of parenthood, and of writing weekly mother poems, with a changed perspective on a lot of things. My relationship now with the women in the Bible is different. There are so many stories of women struggling with infertility in the Hebrew Bible, and women who became mothers, and women who sought to shape their childrens’ lives — I identify with those women in a different way now.
That experience also changed my relationship with God and with prayer. Before our son was born, I used to love taking a luxurious hour for praying the morning service; but once he was born, it was impossible to make the time. Between nursing and burping and pumping and nursing and diapering and nursing — the space just wasn’t there. I learned to connect with God in different ways: not despite the baby on my hip or on my lap or on the breast, but in and through my relationship with the baby. I sang prayers to the baby. I had silent one-way conversations with God while nursing in the middle of the night. It changed my relationship with prayer altogether.
And as a writer, I have much more appreciation now for the space and time I’m able to glean for my creativity. I don’t think I’ll ever feel strapped for writing-time again. No matter how busy life gets, I’ve learned how to find spaciousness in the tiniest places. I think that’s a spiritual truth as well as a pragmatic one!
LA: What advice can you provide mothers who are struggling to find their own time and voice to write?
RB: First: be gentle with yourself. You’re doing something amazing, parenting a child.
I would recommend: set yourself small and manageable goals. For me, writing one poem a week was what I could manage. I couldn’t have managed an essay each week, or a poem each day. Figure out what you can do, and find the space for it regularly.
Remember that whatever you write doesn’t have to be perfect. All a first draft needs to do is exist. Going from “no draft” to “first draft” is the hardest part. Once you’ve got something written down, you can always write another paragraph, or revise the poem, or whatever the work needs.
My teacher Jason Shinder, may his memory be a blessing, used to say “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.” He was talking about poetry: whatever is keeping me from writing poems, that’s what I need to be writing poems about. (I’ve found that it also holds true as a teaching about spiritual life: whatever is keeping me from praying, that’s exactly what I need to bring with me into prayer.) Whatever’s stopping you from being creative, take that thing and bring it into your creative work.
And remember that everything changes. Parenthood changes. Your child changes. You may not have much time or space to write when you have a newborn, but they’re not newborns forever, and life with a 3.5 year old (which is what we have now) is entirely different from life with an infant!
For me, it was also important to give myself permission to feel difficult emotions and to write about those. I found that when I allowed myself to admit that sometimes parenting an infant was really hard, that opened up my creative floodgates. If I had tried to only write happy poems, I think that would have stopped me up dry. But allowing myself to feel whatever I was feeling was a gift to myself both emotionally and creatively. And letting myself sometimes feel the tough stuff meant that I was also open and able to feel the sweetness, too.
The days will lengthen
the voice of the veery thrush will be heard on our land
the tiny stars of crocuses well-rested from the long dark will adorn the icy mud of spring
the sap already rising
will feed a million tiny banners unfurling across the hills
and this small blue pill
will banish anxiety, restore to me the woman I only dimly remember
laughing in photographs
with her hand on her round belly hope curled inside, waiting to unfold
(Copyrighted material. Reposted with author’s permission).
Rachel Barenblat holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is a Jewish Renewal rabbi, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in January of 2011. She serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. She is author of 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011) as well as four chapbooks of poetry, including Through, a self-published chapbook of miscarriage poems (2009). In 2008, her blog, The Velveteen Rabbi, was named one of the top 25 blogs on the internet by TIME. She is perhaps best known for The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, which has been used in homes and synagogues worldwide.Her poems have appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. She lives in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts with her husband Ethan Zuckerman, their son Drew, and their creamsicle cat. Find her blog here and follow her on Twitter @velveteenrabbi.