Letting Go: Pesach Yizkor
‘Eating the Cookies,’ by Jane Kenyon:
The cousin from Maine, Knowing
about her diverticulitis, left out the nuts,
so the cookies weren't entirely to my taste,
but they were good enough; yes, good enough.
Each time I emptied a drawer or shelf
I permitted myself to eat one.
I cleared the closet of silk caftans
that slipped easily from clattering hangers,
and from the bureau I took her nightgowns
and sweaters, financial documents
neatly cinctured in long gray envelopes,
and the hairnets and peppermints she'd tucked among
Lucite frames abounding with great-grandchildren,
solemn in their holiday finery.
Finally the drawers were empty,
the bags full, and the largest cookie,
which I had saved for last, lay
solitary in the tin with a nimbus
of crumbs around it. There would be no more
parcels from Portland. I took it up
and sniffed it, and before eating it,
pressed it against my forehead, because
it seemed like the next thing to do.
--From Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf, St. Paul, MN, 1996; slightly adapted)
I hope you’ll forgive me for reading a poem about cookies during Passover, the season when cookies are not, shall we say, at their best. I do think they are good words to ponder in this season of cleaning out the chametz, removing all the leavened food from our homes. The poet, Jane Kenyon -- the speaker in the poem -- is engaged in just such a quiet household task -- an act of cleaning out and clearing away.
Someone close to her has died. We know from background notes that it was Lucy Wells Hall, the mother of her husband, Donald Hall; we know that the poem is set in March, 1994, shortly after Lucy’s death. Jane, the daughter-in-law, has taken on the task of going through her mother-in-law’s things; a lifetime of personal possessions; intimate garments she wore close to her body, documents once important, now irrelevant; treasured family photos; piles and piles of stuff.
It’s arduous work – physically taxing, emotionally draining. We can tell this because periodically the poet has to psych herself up to keep going. After each small step in the clearing-away process she stops to reward herself by eating one cookie from a tin of homemade treats sent to her mother-in-law by a cousin in Portland.
There are some spiritual overtones to this task. The financial documents are “cinctured” in long gray envelopes – a cincture is the cord or sash tied around a long, gray monk’s habit. At the end of the work, when all the drawers are empty and the trash bags are full, one cookie remains in the tin, surrounded by a nimbus – a halo – of crumbs. And it’s true: this act of clearing away the possessions of the dead is not just ordinary housecleaning. There is an element of sacred service performed, a last duty faithfully carried out by a survivor who sticks with the task, no matter how exhausting; doing the next thing, and the next, and the next -- because it has to be done. It reminds me of the Hebrew phrase “chesed shel emet – the truest act of kindness” -- caring for the dead; called the ultimate kindness because the beneficiary cannot express thanks or reciprocate in any way.
There’s something rather tender about the act of eating the cookies as Jane Kenyon clears away the last remnants of her mother-in-law’s life. She is performing her faithful service for the woman who gave birth to her beloved husband; but she is also doing something for herself, treating herself to the cookies her mother-in-law never got to eat. Not great cookies, mind you, but “good enough, yes, good enough.”
The climax comes when the work is done and one treat remains – the last one, for “there would be no more parcels from Portland.” Knowing that it’s the end, the poet makes a bit of a ceremony about the act of eating the cookie -- savoring its fragrance, pressing it to her forehead as if to seal the memory there before the last bite is gone.
For Christians, Jane Kenyon’s poem would probably suggest the Eucharist, the consecrated bread whose eating is a holy sacrament, offering grace and renewal. And just as Christians yesterday celebrated their springtime holiday of rebirth and resurrection, today we Jews reach the end of our own spring festival of renewal, marked by our own act of holy eating, and our own crunchy little wafer.
The word matzah is short – just three Hebrew letters – but it spells out the story of a long, transformative journey. Early in the Seder, matzah is called lachma anya – the “bread of affliction,” the poor and miserable bread our ancestors ate in slavery. But matzah is also called “the bread of freedom” – for it was the food the Israelites took with them on their Exodus into the wilderness. In matzah we taste both the suffering and the liberation, the darkness and the going forth into light.
In our Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesach, we re-enact the moment of crossing into freedom. The Israelites, pursued by their foes, desperately afraid, overwhelmed by a sea of troubles, stride forward into the waters that bar their way. And lo and behold, “B’nei Yisrael halchu ba-yabasha b’toch ha-yam – the Israelites walked on dry land in the midst of the sea” [Ex.15:19]. Pesach is the holiday that recalls the going forward; the act of walking itself -- putting one foot in front of another, again and again, propelled by the belief that better things lie ahead. Perhaps that’s why the Zohar calls matzah “the bread of faith” – reminding us that the essence of the Exodus was the faith that life could change and pain was not forever.
For us who have lost someone we love, faith may be in short supply; but it is all we have if we are to make our own exodus from grief. How else will we come out of the darkness? The mourner’s work is the work of Pesach – cleaning out the chametz, letting go of what we no longer need; crossing through the sea, moving forward into life.
There is the physical work of letting go – exhausting, emotionally wrenching: the paperwork and endless phone calls that confirm, again and again, that he is dead, that she is gone. The cleaning out of closets and drawers; houses full of furniture, piles and piles of stuff. Faithful acts of service to the ones who are gone; the last acts of kindness we can do.
Harder still is the psychic work – letting go of obsessive questions to which we’ll never know the answer: What did he feel in his last moments of life? Was he afraid? Did she know she was dying? Did she know we were there? Was there more we could or should have done? Would it have made a difference? Where is he now? Why does it have to be like this?
Arduous is the labor of letting go of all the ways we torture ourselves when someone we love has died. Letting go of sharp regrets that gnaw at our soul – harsh words and stupid squabbles; loving words we didn’t say enough, or never heard; the times we turned away; the questions we didn’t ask; visits that didn’t happen; promises not kept. And how do we let go of all the memories that hurt? The descent into dementia; the terrible sound of his breathing at the end; her panic and terror; their suffering, and ours.
Hardest of all is the spiritual work of saying goodbye: loosening our grip on the ones we’ve loved so much; letting go of someone who was the ground beneath our feet, our anchor and touchstone; our best friend in the world; our second self to whom we opened our heart like no one else.
Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall fell in love and married in 1972. He was her professor, a man 20 years her senior, and it was the last great love for both of them -- a true marriage of mind and heart. In 1975 they moved to Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire – land that had been in Hall’s family for generations. It was a peaceful spot, where they built a life on poetry, their shared passion; the natural world around them; and their love for one another. In 1989, when Hall was in his early sixties, he was diagnosed with colon cancer; a few years later, it metastasized to his liver. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy, then miraculously went into remission, though he was given only a one in three chance of surviving for five years. Around the same time, in 1994, they discovered that his young wife had leukemia. “Eating the Cookies” was the only poem Jane Kenyon wrote during her illness. Despite undergoing aggressive treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, she died at home in April, 1995, at the age of 47.
Donald Hall, now 88, still lives at Wilmot Farm. He has published 15 volumes of poetry and is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. Here’s a poem he wrote about his wife; it’s called “Her Garden.”
I let her garden go.
let it go, let it go
How can I watch the hummingbird
Hover to sip
With its beak’s tip
The purple bee balm – whirring as we heard
It years ago?
The weeds rise rank and thick
let it go, let it go
Where annuals grew and burdock grows
Where standing she
At once could see
The peony, the lily, and the rose
Rise over brick
She’d laid in patterns. Moss
let it go, let it go
Turns the bricks green, softening them
By the gray rocks
That lofted while she lived, stem by tall stem,
Blossom with loss.
The poem is haunted by that gentle refrain – “let it go, let it go.” Perhaps it’s what people have been telling him; perhaps it’s what he says to himself as he tries to move out of the darkness. Let it go; let her go, as you let her garden go. Savor the fragrance, seal in the memories, then loosen your grip. Only by letting go will you blossom, like the hollyhocks, through loss.
Therapist Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, writes: “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible” [“The Geography of Sorrow: Francis Weller on Navigating our Losses,” in The Sun, October 2015].
That is how we go forward, putting one foot in front of another, again and again; doing the next thing, and the next, and the next; walking towards freedom and renewal; letting go, when we’re ready, of what we do not need; loosening our grip on what hurts us and holds us back. We go forward in faith, believing there are better times ahead; carrying grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. Going forward is a gift we give to ourselves. And perhaps it’s one last thing we can do for those who have died.
Kim Church, who lost her own husband to leukemia at the age of 46, writes: “Fifteen years later I’m sitting on a porch swing with my friend Koji. It’s spring; a light rain is falling. We’re watching a baby cardinal – “redbud,” Koji calls it – flap around uselessly in a puddle. “Baby redbud have instinct to fly,” Koji says, “but it must practice.”
Koji, with his Japanese accent, is my wisest-sounding friend. He asks what I’ve been writing lately. “Something for my late husband,” I say. “I owe him a eulogy.”
Koji frowns. “Don’t pull on legs of spirits. Send good wish” – he closes and opens his fingers – “and let go.” [“Exactly What to Say,” by Kim Church in The Sun, April 2016, slightly adapted]
It’s springtime. There are flowers to savor and cookies to taste and good people who need our love. So let us remember the ones who are gone; and send good wishes, and begin to let them go.