Spring, a story of self

Excerpt from my journal on Shavuot.

Like clipping the top of a shit pile with a lawn mower on a sticky day. The discomfort of grass shrapnel sticking to your skin, flowing its way down the babbling brook of sweat that collects in the small of your back, feels like a panic attack. The smell of lawn still makes my nose itch, years and miles away from this cold train on what promises to be a rainy day in upstate New York. I have not had to mow the lawn in a decade, but today as I avoided the banks of clipped grass in hopes of keeping my dress shoes at least clean if not dry, I thought about mowing the lawn. I felt the unease of this semester and the treif feeling of not having yet completed my final assignments beginning to settle as I tried to steer my mind from the thought of having to use the leaf blower to clean off the sidewalk.

I have begun unpacking my anxieties. So often my fears take the form of clingy discomfort—a sort of mental claustrophobia to which I subject myself because I can’t help but rehearse disaster in my head. I carry my tension in my jaw and from there it radiates from my shoulders to the small of my back. This semester it rendered me nearly immobile some days, unable to leave my bed for lack of strength. I have learned to live with the idea of my anxiety, but I have yet to tame the cacophony, to conduct it from the stage. Rather I find myself pacing the aisles of the theatre as the band drones on.

The clouds above the mountain look something violent. How appropriate a shroud above their freshly-greened peaks on this day for remembering the flashes of Sinai. The sun shines between the threads of dark gray and a slice of the mountain drinks of its cascade, long sips as the earth rotates, until the green is cast in shadow again.

I imagine beneath the canopy of oak and evergreen a congregation of wildlife receiving their own Torah. They enjoy their moment of sun and return to the doings of forestry: the daily demands of growth and life, of dew and death, sun and dust. Kaddish! They exclaim, and mumbling in the drizzle, they conclude their prayers.

— — — — — — — — — — — —

The intoxicating dizziness of a hot summer room is the legacy left behind by southern revivals and cult leaders. The condensation streams down a glass of iced tea onto the coffee table where a stack of pamphlets once announced the second coming. The parlor where a woman once fainted from heat and woolen gown—overcome with the spirit, no doubt—is the way I make sense of hardwood floors and craftsman decor. This fictional room in my head is the memory of days spent in sunny spaces avoiding the harshness of Texas summer. The buzzy way your head feels after a day in the sun when your back finally relaxes into a soft couch is the pinpricking of my skin by tiny drops of rain the day before June arrives to Brooklyn. Here the days are less hot, but we achieve the romantic warmth of a Texas summer thanks to our large windows’ northern exposure.

While I miss the boozy feeling of the sun urging you to take a nap, the gleam of distant sun reflecting off the towers of south Manhattan is reminiscent of the sun of my childhood. Spring here has already afforded me a handful of dreamy afternoons that break with the opening of windows, transforming my cozy warmth into a breezy parlor. This month brought the first thunder storm and with it the thunderous breaking sound that comforts my ears against the foreground of wind and water battering window ledges and awnings. The weather here is dynamic, for sure, and while at most times a far cry from the weather I knew before, it is satisfying. In fact, the weather I have experienced is what I like most about living in New York. Take the city, I don’t need it. The pattern of change that comes with clouds is all I need.

When Alex and I first started dating we spent a lot of time drinking cold drinks on hot porches. I remember thinking I wanted to live my life this way forever—in a time bound obligation to make sure the clock ticked by as slowly as possible; an obligation to drink every drop before it was time to return to my home where he did not yet live. My desire to be near him at all times with the aching heat turned me away from the cruelty of summer. The dog days were the moments we stole away from G-d, greedily keeping them for ourselves in our perfect bubble of budding love.

In the slow heat of the day I find excuses to stand for hours in the kitchen. I have rested barely a second since classes ended, spending a good chunk of each passing day in my favorite room of the house, cooking, cleaning, organizing, and prepping to begin again. I struggle with the idea of being productive, even in leisure. I’m not sure I know how to relax. How do you discover this at twenty-nine? Is there an age you reach when you at last understand just what your mind needs to be at ease?

Today it has drizzled nearly from the moment I awakened until now. The rain fell in a snowy pattern, light drops blown by wind into formations more akin to birdways than precipitation. I kept the windows tightly closed, air conditioner turned off. I must do my part to capture the sleepy hot air of the summer, allowing myself to doze at the peace that only a humid heat can make.

Spring, a story of plants

But where are my Pride of Barbados and the esperanza lining 281 south? What of the flowers that live on the floor of an oak forest and the sage, flowered, atop its limestone cliff? The stone loop of 1604 with its stunted evergreens… I wonder how many of them are still decorated for Christmases past.

When we moved, my mother got the backyard she always wanted. She and my father spent weeks digging themselves a pond in the evenings. I remember sitting in the kitchen and watching as their blistered hands pulled forth more earth, crawling with life and the mysteries of undeveloped land. The new backyard was barren, a land that seemed to me too vast to possibly populate with the greenery of which she dreamed.

Where are my Texas Mountain Laurel with its grape perfume and Mexican Heather in the front yard of my childhood home, home itself to the bees about my ankles, buzzy and sundrunk? I knew spring arrived when its purple flowers were covered in the hairy bodies of sweet, bumbling bees.

Our previous home, a rental across town, is where she showed us what dirt smells like after rain and how a weekend trip to Houston means arriving home to new baby squash and a jungle of string beans. There she gradually filled the ancient raised beds and showed us how caring for plants was as much a game of trial and error as it was a natural display of love.

Where are my zucchini flowers with their sticky sharpness and the rotten tulip bulbs unearthed by falling hail? My grandfather drank his coffee and stared at the storm while we held hands worrying about the vegetables.

One day my sister and I went into the woods behind the new house and dug up a yucca for my mother. We planted it in the backyard where it was visible from the kitchen window and beside it we gave a new home to a miniature rose bush. The plants looked pitiful, as if they had fallen roots-first off the back of a truck. Nobody bothered to throw them out and instead they pushed their way into the earth.

Where are my rhododendron and Jasmine creeping across the back fence? I hated their urine smell and the way vermin could hide in them, but their blooms marked so many passing years from my bedroom window.

We announced our triumph and showed her what we had done. I cannot recall her reaction—surely a mixture of incredulity, appreciation, and a stifled laugh—but I know how important it made us feel to give her our gift.

Where are my Turk’s Cap
amaryllis of my life
the peach tree outside my closet window on Brighton Oaks
the trumpet vine on Ridge Spur
the coreopsis beneath the Hackberry tree
datura with its evil bells outside the neighbor’s window
the vitex she planted on Trentwood when the Hackberry came down
banana trees whose vascular tissue grew even after being cut down for winter

I have grown even as I was cut down this winter. My childhood home is gone forever and spring creeps beyond a haze of fluorescent gray over the Hudson river. I miss the smells of my home and the birds and bees who grazed and lived among the names, scientific and common, that I collected for my mother’s treasures.

Yesterday I saw my first crocus blooms. I am learning a new flora and making it feel like home. Yellow buds along the train tracks show me that this may be the last time I take the 256 line south with my traveling companion, winter.

And I am ready to thaw.

Spring, a story of birds

Life is your bird bath.

A post shared by Stefano Iacono (@stefamaybe) on

A mourning dove built a nest outside our window. She laid a pair of sweet, little eggs outside the room in which our birds sleep. Daily, a few birds visit the green area behind our apartment now, beginning their spring search for sprouted food. I try not to disturb her in the morning when I wake my own little eggs up.

A few weeks ago a young European Starling began a daily ritual of puttering about on our fire escape, practicing his songs, and dancing up and down the stairs. He has visited us all winter long, some days for just a minute or two, but he stays for longer visits now that it’s warming up. He rearranges the greenery on our fire escape and looks inside at the strange birds that live on the other side of the windows. He will attempt to secure a mate in the coming weeks and hopefully will grow his family in our midst.

Our indoor birds have grown restless and downy, anxious for the upcoming season change and (hopeful) increase in indoor humidity. Gandhi, our smaller bird, has started teasing Zoe more and taunting him from just beyond the reach of his cage. The hormones of spring are nearly in full swing and I can’t leave them alone together for a second.

And while the birds have been arranging for their changes of pace with the lengthening of days, it hit me only when emerging onto Herald Square from the Q train that winter is over. As the sun shone on my face for the first time in weeks, I squinted the tears from the corners of my eyes and understood. I am from Texas, and no matter how hard I try, winter will always be a psychological challenge for me.

Winter was a beautiful romance. I love the coziness of heated flooring and the warmth of a pre-war fireplace. Snow, ice, slush, and wintry drizzle amaze me. Far less precipitous winters are the norm where I’m from, so this year’s protracted winter started out as fun but eventually I found it more and more difficult to get out of bed in the morning (and to the nay-sayers: according to reported figures, this winter was the worst in ten years and smashed decades-old records).

Perhaps it was the announcement on WNYC today that we would see the 70s this weekend that prompted my tearful encounter with the sun. I scratched my head, unsure about how to dress for weather that warm. Do I just go back to my old clothes or is there a transition period in which I am expected to wear the lightest of sweaters over thin cotton? Will I look crazy if I head out in shorts and a t-shirt? I have forgotten what it’s like to leave the house with my arms and legs exposed.

Unlike the birds, I do not have an instinctual stirring that I know of (other than seasonal affective disorder) that makes me ready for spring. Instead I mark the passage of time by shifting our liturgy one important sentence: morid ha-tal we chant now, and rather than giving thanks to the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall, we thank the One who makes dew come down.

I steadied myself last week at the end of Pesach and prepared to chant the words for the first time in a year. Morid hatal. My first winter is over and spring is rearing its head. I have so much to do before the summer is here and nearly no time to prepare! At last, I join the birds in our flits of hurry. I must clear out my winter nest and look forward to a new coziness. Our second wedding anniversary approaches and at last this Texan’s skin has felt the sun.

Brooklyn Snow

We have finally begun to feel snug in our nest. The sparrows and pigeons outside our apartment are warm beneath their winter down, “floofed,” as we say, at all times. The dizzying array of iridescent feathers keep the wind from ever reaching their skin, and the follicles themselves protrude like goose bumps to keep every feather standing at attention in the snow. On the surface of every bird is a battle of homeostasis: sleeping, eating, and “floofing” make for an exhausting day, but these birds—many of whom are experiencing their first snow this season—are well equipped. And should they fail, their flock will be at their side with extra warmth on chilly nights.

Unlike the rain, which the sky begrudgingly releases only when it absolutely must to spare the parched earth, the snow is simply released above us to flutter, flail, and ultimately gather at our feet. It threatens the salted streets, riverbanks growing where sidewalks once knew the sun. I believe whole heartedly that when nobody is looking the snow rearranges itself neatly along the edges of the land it cannot conquer. As the street stays black, aided by the tires of passing cars, the snow lingers along its sidelines, ever gradually working its way toward full coverage.

I watched as a truck sent a vortex of snow in a rage—how dare the gust of traffic keep flakes from their final resting place! Here on Fourth Avenue the snow attacks the expressway at a slant, at times so nearly parallel to the earth that it looks as though Bay Ridge is exporting its snowy produce toward the Gowanus canal. From the windows of the birds’ room, our secret garden in the airlock between our buildings is an idyllic white pasture where snow gracefully lets itself down to the remains of patio furniture and abandoned wheel barrows. The chain link fences and wrought iron are appropriately be-speckled by the sky’s white equalizer. The apparent economic stratification from one corner of South Slope to the far edge of Park Slope is blanketed by a cotton of ice that begs for hot chocolate and Netflix.

There is little in life more exciting than the run to the subway. I laugh to myself as I run from the snow, hiding underground in relative warmth, antsy until my train emerges above ground shortly after our transfer to Dekalb Avenue. Here, along the bridge, we meet again as a new battle emerges between frigid river barge brigade and a foreign snowy offensive. I quietly cheer for the snow to win. My morbid hope that this be the snow that slows the city that never sleeps to a grinding halt keeps me glued to the windows of the train. Perhaps today is the day of this freezing week on which we finally see a reprieve from the endless demands of Manhattan that spill over into my Brooklyn paradise. With the day’s 800 meters of visibility the ever-looming skyline of sad towers is already completely obscured by a comforting snow. Nothing beyond the expressway exists, and the foreground of my view is a fire escape delicately topped with confectioner’s sugar.

The second to last day of the year and what a magical day it is to awaken to what still feels a fairy tale. I pray that the birds beyond my window stay warm and loved as the ones inside. I nearly muster a prayer for humanity but do not wish to jinx this magical day. Today humanity must pause and concede to the might of the sky.

These Cloudy Days of Awe: Hin’ni and Nina Simone

It’s been ages since I have just put on headphones and listened to music. I sing so much at school and while preparing for classes, services, and the High Holy Days that the last thing on my mind is music for recreation. I sit at the piano and hammer away my frustrations, I sit and learn new pieces on my guitar, but I never listen. I have closed off my ears in exhausted frustration.

I do chores to the soundtrack of NPR. I opt for TV when I need noise at home that doesn’t require anything of me. I don’t know how long I’ve been this exhausted, but it has become a fact of life. When I finally get to relax, my fuel tank is empty and I simply do not have the capacity to enjoy music outside of work and school.

Today, however, I broke out my headphones. On my way to Penn Station to catch a train to my pulpit in Schenectady it dawned on me that it has been so long since I have listened to music that I didn’t know where to start. This time last year I made a playlist for the Days of Awe, the days of this season during which we look inward to take spiritual inventory of our year. Who were we, what did we do, whom did we love? Whom have we harmed?

The first song had me nearly in tears. It is a particularly heavy song, weighed down by memories of my days as a singer-songwriter. I sang it to open each set. I played and sang my heart out in bars and listening rooms hoping to find some kind of connection, but I mostly came up empty in terms of spiritual satisfaction. I felt a kind of numbness in my performance high that was not only confusing, but totally uninspiring. Today as the Days of Awe playlist continued, I remembered why I added each song to this list last year. I began looking at the time between then and now. How have these songs changed? How have I changed? How has my relationship with music changed?

I am going to stand before a congregation I love and pray with them during these Days of Awe. I am going to literally and metaphorically beseech G-d for guidance through the process of forgiving myself and others. I will stand on the bimah and pray through music for myself and on behalf of the congregation. This year, however, I am responsible for delivering a piece of liturgy that has both inspired me and terrified me.

Nina Simone’s famous cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on next. Her fervent prayer that the good within her outlast the bad struck me. I have spent days, weeks, and months feeling the pressure of the upcoming holidays and I have mostly felt crushed beneath their weight. I have struggled to present a true version of myself to the world while hiding my feelings of inadequacy.

Baby, sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that’s hard to hide
And sometimes it seems that
All I have to do is worry
And then you’re bound to see my other side

I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I could not believe it. I’m on my way to do something that scares me to death and here is a song I have sung for years and finally understood. This feeling exists all around me, and I have never listened.

“Hin’ni,” I will chant.

Here I am standing before this congregation asking You, G-d, to look past my shortcomings and accept the words in this room. If I should fall short, I ask humbly that you do not fault them on my behalf. Please give me the strength to do this to the best of my ability… I don’t know what else to do.

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I used to pray this every time I walked onto a stage. Now, finally, I pray this in a place where I belong, no longer performing, and no longer searching for fulfillment. Truly, hin’ni.

My Days of Awe were cloudy days in which I felt lost. I’m still a bundle of nerves and self-doubt, but I can say for sure that my heart and soul are in the right place. As we go into these magnificent, terrifying, and challenging days, we will find our own ways to stand and say Hin’ni. I offer my spiritual disclaimer in no uncertain terms: I am scared. I am still learning and I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing. But I am also a soul whose intentions are good, and all I can do is hope that my work and my intentions are enough for this season.

And when it’s all done, I promise to listen to music again.

Blessed are you, Eternal Source of the Universe, who hears our prayers.

Shanah tovah.