Category Archives: Maps

travel tales

Speaking at the Catholic Information Center

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at the Catholic Information Center in Grand Rapids. Nu? What’s a girl like me doing speaking at the CIC?

A lovely man by the name of Dan Pierson found me through the wonders of the internet. We got to talking. I visited his website and learned some things I never knew and should have.

He read and reviewed my book This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy on ecatechist. We kicked around ideas for a presentation and decided that my talk Eight Teachings for Pursuing Your Dream, in which I share the lessons I learned when publishing my first book, would be a good topic for a program he knew of at the Catholic Information Center.

Dan calls himself a catalyst. As he told me in Grand Rapids when we met last month, “I get great ideas for programs, put the right people together and find the finance folks who make it happen.”

Dan catalysted (totally made up word) with Irene Strom, the CIC’s Director of Programming. Irene invited me to speak at the Center’s Great Women, Great Wisdom program.

It was a great night. Irene had arranged for there to be sweets and treats before my talk. The room where we gathered was lovely: blooming pots of pale blue forget-me-nots were set off by pretty tableware in similar shades of blues and greens. Right before I went up to speak, Dan whispered with a smile, “You better make me look good, girl, OK?”

“I’ll make us both look good,” I replied.

The audience at the CIC was a great mix of men and women, some young folks and some older ones. There was a sister—Sr. Sue Tracy—who, every time I looked her way was nodding and smiling. The audience was utterly rapt. They got my humor, and commiserated with me over the trials and tribulations of getting my book to print. Their questions were wonderful.

“Where did you find your interviewees?” someone asked.  I explained that I began with friends. I also sought out interesting stories in the Jewish periodicals I subscribe to often cold-calling those I read about to see if they would be interested in sharing their story.

Another person in the audience asked why I used the Hebrew word “Shoah” when referring to the Holocaust.  I explained that the latter word was drawn from the Greek meaning to offer a burnt sacrifice. Shoah means great calamity or catastrophe. Six million Jews and four million others — disabled, homosexual, others deemed undesirable — were murdered, not sacrificed in any sense of the word. Thus, my use of the word Shoah.

Irene had asked me to share an activity, and so we created little booklets that participants could keep on hand to write down their own dreams and thoughts. I brought decorative papers for the booklet covers; Irene had the instructions and supplies all ready.

I make it a point to read a story from the book before questions. This time, Irene asked if I would read an extra story as folks were finishing up their booklets. She wanted me to read the last story in the book which is titled “She is Pure.” This story recounts the Jewish ritual of tahara, the process of washing and preparing the deceased for burial.

I’m always happy to share the stories in This Jewish Life; each is like an old friend with whom I enjoy visiting. As I began reading the story this time, however, I did so having just lost my mother in March.

Each sentence I read about how the deceased’s body was treated lovingly, softly, how it was washed and wrapped in pure white linen, brought home that this ritual had been done for my mother as well, and so recently. There was a moment during my reading when my voice broke and I had regroup. I didn’t mind; all in the room had welcomed me so warmly.

Tahara is a beautiful and meaningful ritual. I was happy to share this story. Had Irene not asked me to read She is Pure  that night, I might never have considered, in just this way, my mother’s last moments as a Jewish woman here on earth.

I’m grateful to Irene and her staff and to catalyst extraordinaire Dan Pierson for making the evening possible. May you pursue your dreams and may they all come to be.

Chance Encounters: Dinah Berland and a stranger in the gardens

Apologies in advance to regular readers of the column; last month’s smash-up of life cycle events (Mom’s funeral followed eleven days later by Elliot’s wedding)  will serve once again to frame this week’s column.

i-H8ZCH33-LOne of the things I have always loved about traveling are the chance encounters that are way better than anything one could have planned. Aufruf is a Yiddish word that means “calling up.” It has come to refer to the ceremony at which an engaged couple is called up to be blessed at Sabbath services the week (or day) prior to their wedding. The groom’s parents host a special luncheon in the couple’s honor.  During the service, Elliot chanted in Hebrew the Haftarah, the reading from prophets chosen to serve as a supporting text to the weekly Torah reading. Elizabeth chanted the blessings and read the translation. The rabbi gave them a beautiful blessing, after which they were showered with candy, to symbolize our wishes for a sweet life together.

During the luncheon, I was sitting at a table with some of Elizabeth’s family when we were joined by a mother and her two adult daughters.  We talked about an upcoming trip to Paris the mom was to make with one of her granddaughters and about the daughters’ work. The mom and I got to talking.  Oh, you wrote a book?  So did I!  What was your book? When she told me I nearly dropped my kugel because I knew about her book.  I’d read some wonderful reviews and excerpts. OK, hadn’t bought it but had always meant to.

Hours of Devotion Dinah BerlandI stopped eating and listened to Dinah Berland’s story, a story I remembered from reading the wonderful reviews when her book—Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women—came out. The story itself is one of wonderful coincidence: Dinah had been estranged from her son for eleven years when she stumbled upon a book of personal prayers (techines) written by Fanny Neuda, a German woman, the daughter of a rabbi, and published in 1885. And there the author was at my table, telling me the story of finding Neuda’s book in the original German in a used bookstore in LA, and opening it right to a techine asking God to watch over a son who is far away.

With the discovery, and subsequent translation and publication of this book, Dinah Berland pretty much resurrected this beautiful tradition of women’s prayers, prayers that center on home life and women’s experiences — childbirth, the day of one’s son’s bris, taking a child to school for the first time, lighting Sabbath candles.  Who of us hasn’t uttered a silent modern-day techine — asking God to watch over our teens when they get their driver’s license? Time is irrelevant to mothers’ hopes for their children’s safety and wellbeing. Dinah and I agreed to trade books then and there. I look forward to reading a book I knew about and am now grateful to know its author.

This cactus garden is just one of many on the Getty Center grounds.

This cactus garden is just one of many on the Getty Center grounds.

A few days after meeting Dinah Berland, Martin and I went to the Getty Center in LA. Better than the art (although the art is pretty spectacular) are the grounds. Set high upon a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles, the Getty Center’s gardens are stunning, filled with peaceful nooks, exquisite plantings and 360 degree views.  Still trying to assimilate all that had happened over the past few days, I let Martin go ahead. I settled on a bench and closed my eyes for some quiet time.

A voice interrupted my thoughts. I opened my eyes. Asked the cute young man standing before me to repeat himself. “You look so peaceful and happy. What is your secret?”  he said. Oy if you only knew! I thought to myself. But then I decided to just run with the moment. “I don’t know what you saw on my face, but if I told you the week I’ve had, you might not believe it.”  I gave him the elevator version — Mom died last week; son is getting married this week.  “Wow!” he replied. “Can I sit down and talk to you? You’ve experienced things I can’t even imagine.”

We were sitting just up from the topiary maze, off to the right

We were sitting just up from the topiary maze, off to the right

For the next thirty minutes or so this twenty something young man and I talked about life. About parents and letting go.  About girlfriends and commitment.  He was debating a move to New York to be with his lawyer girlfriend. He had so many questions about marriage. What was it really like?  Was it was worth it? None of his married friends seemed happy.  Feeling quite on in years, but also keenly aware that this was a moment that he might always remember, I told him that my husband and I would soon be married 34 years. Marriage wasn’t always a walk in the park; it took work and compromise; understanding and forgiveness; an ongoing sense of adventure and a willingness to grow. I believed strongly in the value of marriage and regretted how easily folks seem to go in and out of it. Or not at all. He didn’t seem too ready to move to New York to be with the girlfriend.  (I  confess to a fleeting thought of fixing him up with my daughter.)

The conversation ran its course and we parted after a half hour or so. Way cool, this magical moment that highlighted how far I’ve come, how many years are tucked under the belt that keeps my mom jeans up, and how grateful I am that this young man singled me out for a deep conversation about life on a beautiful sunny day. I sent a prayer his way, a techine of sorts that he finds his way, happily and in safety.

Darvick-Getty-Center-bougainvilleaCare to read more about Dinah Berland?

In 2007, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Dinah about Hours of Devotion. In 2008, ReadTheSpirit published a poem for Passover that Dinah included in her collection. Still later, ReadTheSpirit published this update from Dinah Berland on her research.

When Nature’s the Classroom, Trees are the Teachers


Embraceable yew? No, juniper.

Embraceable yew? No, juniper.

We saw quite a few of these amiable self-hugging trees as we hiked the trails in Sedona a few months back. The first words that sprang to mind when I saw this particular one was a public service bumper sticker from the 1970’s asking, “Have you hugged your kids today?” Sorry state of affairs that folks have to be reminded to hug their children.

The second phrase that came to mind was, “Have you hugged yourself, today?” How often do we stop and acknowledge our own goodness? To take a moment for a self-hug celebrating the completion of a difficult task? Might it help us along to remember to stop and embrace ourselves in the midst of a harried day? Be good to yourself, this juniper reminded me. Hold yourself close in support and celebration.


Before I go further along these trails, let me invite you to step into these images with me. If you click on any of today’s photos, they get bigger. Click again and a couple of them will get much bigger. But, back to the trail ..

Does your mind instantly form a heart, too?

Does your mind instantly form a heart, too?

I saw this tree on my only solo walk — a six-mile trek early on a cool morning. Instantly my brain closed the branches into the heart that everyone sees in this photograph. Probably something do with gestalt theory about our brains always seeking to close the circle, fix the “problem” or complete what’s been left incomplete. So with my gestalt brain extending the tree branches to complete the image of the heart, my emotional brain got to thinking about closed hearts and open hearts, about what it means to have a complete heart and if one is in possession of such a wonder, does it mean there is no room left for more goodness?
When my kids come to town I often say, “Ahh, my heart is complete” by which I mean “I need nothing else in this world; this moment is the apex of all apexes.” In yoga there are any number of asanas called “heart-openers,” postures designed to physically model the emotional compassion and openness to others that make for a kinder world. The phrase complete heart says one thing; the words closed heart means something altogether different. I think maybe the lesson this lovely tree imparts is this: only by keeping an open heart, can we experience, again and again, a complete heart.


No danse macabre, this. A danse l'arbre.

No danse macabre, this. A danse l’arbre.

As in life so in death, I always think when I see these wind-swept trees. Although they are dead, dead, dead, they are gorgeous — branches reaching skyward in jubilation, trunks bent in suppleness; even their exposed roots seem to be tip-toeing off to some arboreal party deep in the forest. In death, it’s as if you can read the story of the tree’s entire life — drought and plenty, storms of destruction, a lopsidedness that belies being overshadowed by greater forces. I can’t help but ponder: what of us when we die? What will those we leave behind see in the forest of their memories of us? I hope-hope-hope to be recalled just like these trees: still dancing in the rain, still reaching upward in hope and determination, bent, yes, and gnarled, yet somehow deeply alive.  Have you hugged yourself today?


How could I not share this tiptoeing tree? Isn’t she a hoot! Kudos to hubby for this wonderful shot.

We know feet have roots.  But feet?

We know trees have roots. But feet?

If you’ve enjoyed these photos and would like to share them, please do; and please credit Debra Darvick (1-3) or Martin Darvick (4) and provide the link to  Thank you.


Irises in the Desert?


Sedona's Jim Thompson Trail is a worthy hike, even for beginners.

Sedona’s Jim Thompson Trail is a worthy hike, even for beginners.

The Jim Thompson trail in Sedona, Arizona is a four-mile round trip hike offering up breathtaking views from vantage points of 4800 feet.  Oak Creek’s first settler, Jim Thompson, built the road in order to bring produce from his Oak Creek farm to the residents of Sedona. Eventually he made a homestead in Sedona and used the road to connect his two properties. Now a great hike along a formation called Steamboat Rock, it weaves through juniper and other pines, deciduous trees, and plenty of agave, prickly pear and hedgehog cacti.

We took it on during the middle of our stay, once our hiking muscles had acquired a bit more oomph, and our lungs had adjusted to the altitude.  About halfway through the walk we rounded a bend and came upon a huge swath of purple bearded irises blooming in a cleft of rock.  Irises!  Gorgeous and vibrant as if they were just waiting for Van Gogh to set up his easel and start smearing his palette with ropes of violet, cobalt, orange, goldenrod, and green.

Surprisingly there are irises all over town. Of course with water and a fairly hardy plant, you can grow most anything anywhere. We learned that the original pioneer women brought irises with them. What longing they must have felt as they set out, tucking a few precious corms of hope and memory as they began their westward trek.

But how did this particular stand of iris arrive, and manage to thrive, in this seemingly inhospitable site? It’s doubtful that a bird swallowed a random iris corm, passing out the remains in mid-air.  Last time I checked, irises had roots but not feet so they couldn’t have arrived under their own power. Perhaps a century plus ago the rivulet of spring rains that sustain the irises today was a steadier flow of water. Maybe Mrs. Thompson dug them into the earth midway between Sedona and Oak Creek, marking the place for respite along the way.

Irises growing alongside an abandoned homestead, West Fork Trail, Oak Creek Canyon

Irises growing alongside an abandoned homestead, West Fork Trail, Oak Creek Canyon

Gardeners often bring along a favorite plant to a new locale, transplanting it along with one’s self.  I have come to admire the hardy little cacti that grow in this most challenging terrain. Considering the effort of simply staying alive, their red and fuchsia blossoms, no bigger than a cotton ball, are all the more glorious. Returning home under mechanized horsepower, I’m as far from a farmwife as you can get. Instead of irises, I have planted a little dish garden of cacti (purchased locally, not poached!) To remind me. And to stoke the hope of returning one day.

The beginnings of a new cactus garden. Now must learn their names!

The beginnings of a new cactus garden. Now must learn their names!

Playing in the Dirt

Dorodango by Bruce Gardner, from a deposit of soil in Placitas, New Mexico

Dorodango by Bruce Gardner, from a deposit of soil in Placitas, New Mexico

I first encountered dorodango some five or six years ago, in an art gallery in Santa Fe. The perfectly round ceramic spheres had been glazed, or so I thought, in earth tones of deep rust, rich brown, inky black, ochre. Silent as buddhas, each nestled upon its own small silk pillow. And then I read the artist’s statement.

The dorodango were not ceramic or kiln-fired orbs at all, but mud balls! That’s right plain old dirt and water taken to amazing heights by Bruce Gardner, the artist. I was utterly enchanted. Making hikaru dorodango, I read, is a traditional pastime of Japanese schoolchildren.  Well if schoolchildren can make them, how hard could it be?

Not until last summer did I try my hand at it, and let me tell you, it’s not so easy. The mixture of dirt and water has to be perfect. Once you have shaped as perfect a sphere as you can, you can’t let it dry too quickly or condense from within too slowly.  The finer dirt that creates the outer shell can’t be applied too early, else the inner core will shrink and pull away. The most finely sifted particulates of dirt that are applied last can’t be applied too soon or polished too vigorously. It took me about a dozen tries before I had something that held together. But instead of a high gloss, it had a dull matte finish that eroded no matter how gently I rubbed.

Out in red rock country, surrounded by glorious red dirt, I thought I’d try again.  And again.  And again. My respect for Bruce Gardner grew each time I mushed my mud back into my bucket to begin again. Finally I quit trying so hard, recalling that dorodango began as a child’s endeavor.

And wouldn’t you know, that’s when a seedling of success began to sprout.  I waited for the dorodango to dry just enough to accept the sifted dirt that would form the outer shell. The technique on Gardner’s website was beyond me, but I found my own rhythm — sprinkling and rotating until a coating, smooth and suede-like, began to adhere and thicken. I was loathe to take the final step — applying the finest sifting of dust and then polishing. What if the shell began to disintegrate? What if I was left with dull and dry instead of glossy and gleaming? I recalled the cat-in-the-box experiment: the cat can be both dead and alive until one opens the box.  As long as I didn’t begin the final step, my dorodango wasn’t a failure.

Once I made peace with the idea that it might just fail again,  I began the last step. Bit by bit it began to gleam. In a couple of spots the outer shell eroded minutely. It’s not anywhere near as shiny as Bruce Gardner’s, nor as smooth. But it’s a bona fide dorodango. I can’t wait to make another one.  And little silk pillow, to boot, for my first success.

My first dorodango, from a deposit of soil in Sedona, AZ

My first dorodango, from a deposit of soil in Sedona, AZ

Retelling the Passover Story

here is a duality to Passover that I never realized until this year. In the weeks leading up to this  holiday celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, we are clearing our cabinets, refrigerators and freezers of  any form of bread, pasta, cereal as we make way for losher for Passover fare. There is the mad scouring of crumbs from fridge gaskets, drawer runners, room corners and coat pockets. For some it’s an all out assault worthy of Patton; for others the custom is distilled to neither, buying, cooking nor eating any kind of breadstuff or leavened food.

But when we finally approach the shore of the purpose of the entire holiday — the retelling of Exodus story — we are free to do so in any manner we wish. Some families dress up as they imagine our ancestors might have; some tent their dining rooms and gather in a circle on the floor for the retelling.  New Haggadot (plural of Haggadah, the book read at the Passover Seder containing the story of the Exodus and the Passover Seder rituals), spring up each year like early crocus — colorful, unique, enchanting. There are innovative twists on the traditional foods — savory, sweet and everything in between. Matzah — the simplest of bread, made from nothing but flour and water — becomes a culinary Zelig, appearing on the Seder table and throughout the week of Passover as a stuffing, a casserole, a dessert, ersatz pizza and even trail mix. The strictures of cleaning behind us, we are liberated to fulfill the commandment to retell the story as if we ourselves were the slaves freed from Egyptian bondage, in any way we wish.

This year, away from home but in a red-earth terrain that feels closer to home than many, I came up with a close-to-literal twist on fulfilling the instruction to  place ourselves in the sandals of those fleeing Egypt. There was a dry creek bed nearby, so why not walk through it, pretending we were the Israelites crossing over the yabasha, the dry bed, revealed by the splitting seas? I gave each family member a role to interpret: Moses, Aaron (Moses brother, the High Priest and Moses’ spokesperson to Pharaoh), Miriam (Moses’ older sister), a young girl who’s just learned she and her family are up and leaving behind all she’s ever known, an old woman who doubts her strength to make this journey, an orphaned Egyptian slave who wants to come along, and Nachshon ben Aminidav, who the midrash teaches caused the waters to part by stepping boldly into the raging sea.

I also printed up the lyrics to Debbie Friedman’s classic “Miriam’s Song” hoping that everyone, after walking through this metaphorical Sea of Reeds, would join me and sing this beautiful, and now classic song.  I sent the lyrics to my daughter to print and she surprised us by creating seven different song sheets, one tailored for each of us.  During the Seder, the middle of three reserved matzot (plural of matzoh) is broken. The larger half is hidden, later to be found by the children (of any age.) Following the lead of the rabbi I have studied with here, I drew a simple piece of matzah on card stock, cut it into pieces and invited each family member to write a time when they had helped to heal someone or  mended a “broken” situation. My plan was to reassemble the pieces and at some point in the Seder, pass around this “matzoh of healing” for us all to read. I wasn’t sure how it all would go — river walk, role playing, sharing a time of healing. We were seven grown-ups after all. Would everyone step out of their comfort zones and get into the spirit?

Yes, yes and yes. On the  walk toward the riverbed, we passed a corral where two horses were grazing. They cantered over to us and we spent a few minutes patting their noses, gazing into their huge brown eyes.  In the Torah portion describing this Biblical crossing,  the waters close over Pharaoh’s army and their horses, drowning every last one. This pair of horses made me think of all the innocents whom war overwhelms and destroys. As we walked slowly over the  cobbled stones of the riverbed, evidence of the water’s power was everywhere: sizable tree limbs lay scattered nearby as we threaded our way through rocks that ran all the way from pebbles to boulders. Like the middle matzoh, what is hidden is actually revealed in its own absence. When we reached the other side, Emma distributed the beautiful song sheets she had made. As we sang, my sister-in-law got us all dancing and laughing, just as Miriam had led the women with her timbrel. The hour or so we took to cross the riverbed, mosey through the park and stroll beside the rushing water of Oak Creek were a perfect opportunity to release the day and gather our thoughts for the coming Seder.

Round and round the table we went, reading from the Haggadah, dipping twice, asking the Four Questions, drinking the four cups of wine, and of course eating, eating and eating. The role playing inspired some interesting insights. My daughter, in the role of the old woman, shared that initially she thought the woman would simply die early on. But then she reconsidered. She could just as well draw upon untapped inner strength, and the strength of those around her to make the journey.  Laura, my sister-in-law’s partner, had drawn Moses and spoke about leadership and how often it is thrust upon us. “So often. we discover that when we step up, or into, a role we don’t feel we are ready for, everything we need to achieve the goal begins to appear,” she said.  As fate would have it my son’s fiancee drew the card of the girl who would be leaving everything behind come morning. Elizabeth shared how it made her think of her own mother who, at eleven, was told that she and her mother were going on vacation from the Czech Republic. Only when they got to California did she learn the truth: America would be her new home. Everything had been left behind: clothes, friends, toys, language.

After the hidden matzoh had been found, we passed around the matzoh puzzle. The only instruction I gave was that we were each to read a moment of healing that was not our own. “I give confidence through tutoring,” read one. “I listen to people’s stories,” read another. It was quite moving to hear the many ways we seven have sought to heal and bring solace to others. This “matzoh of healing” is now in our Passover archive, dated and tucked into the folder with Emma’s beautiful song sheets to be used for another year. And so we entered this week of Passover far from home, yet sweetly closer  one another and a few steps closer to our roots and foundational Story.

Heart to Heart to Heart

cactus heartWhile hiking one day, I came across three hearts, a trio of metaphorical messages courtesy of Mother Nature. The first, above, belongs to a prickly pear cactus. As I walked the dusty red trail, I thought of all the ways we keep our hearts prickly, guarding our inner sweetness with spikes of indifference, fear, resentment. “Stay away!” they warn. “Don’t come too close!” These spiny maneuvers not only keep others from getting too close, but even worse, alienate us from our own heart. Keeping at arm’s length our innermost dreams, feelings, truths and even anxieties robs us of  discovering who we really are, what we actually need, what and whom we might devote our lives to. Stay open, this cacti reminded me. Risk your beautiful heart for that is the only way to live fully, richly, gloriously.

Mother Nature wasn’t done with me yet.  Next heart along the path was a spider web, woven into a stump of a tree. Unbelievable, right?  This gossamer messenger got me thinking about folks who snare us — web hearthearts, schedules, family time — with agendas of their own. Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly, began the parable cautioning us to guard against two-legged arachnids who use flattery, persuasion, and unsettling kindness to bend us to their needs. Before we know it, we are bound with silken threads, drained of energy and feeling like little more than a husk. Tread wisely, cautioned this fragile heart. Advance carefully. Hold your ground.

Three’s the charm, goes the old saying. The day wasn’t done with me before offering up one last message, courtesy of some lichen on a tree. I remembered from grammar school about the symbiotic relationship lichen shares with its host tree. Look closely for two types of lichen:lichen heart the pale green heart and the rusty yellow above and below the heart. Lichen can be found in all climates from desert to ice lands to forests. Fragile, ancient, pervasive, they are also environmental bell weathers, the plant world’s equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. Pristine air, lots of lichen; lots of pollution, no lichen. So as I reached the end of the trail, what was this pale green lichen heart trying to tell me?    Plant yourself where breathing comes easily, it whispered. Engage in healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. Be as ready to give as you are to receive. If you’re feeling choked, take flight, and return to instruction number one.

So how’s your heart beating today? Cactus? Web? Lichen? Who knows why those three hearts were put upon my path, but I love the magic that brought them my way. Hope you do too.