Spirituality for Today – Fall 2016 – Volume 21, Issue 2

A Rose Petal Dropping into the Grand Canyon

Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

A photo of the Grand Canyon.

"Sister Lou Ella, have you ever thought of writing a poem about Leah with the idea that the 'other woman' in your life is your sister?" Her other sage rabbinical advice during our conversation was, "Your midrash is just as good as anybody else's."

It was a birthday gift of sorts. My friend, Miriam, did not have to twist my arm too hard when she told me she wanted me to meet the female rabbinical student who would preside at the synagogue the week-end of my birthday. Ruth Langer would later go on to teach as a Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Boston College as well work as the Associate Director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning Center. Our meeting was some thirty years ago; and like the Grand Canyon, some miracles can't be rushed.

I was also a theology student as I wanted to be an educated religious sister but also I wanted to have something to write about. Thanks to that theological education the rose petal falling into the Grand Canyon would be the simple tool of midrash.

So what in the world is this thing called "midrash?" I will let a dictionary do the talking for me, in this case, it is John McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible. "…it is a meditation the sacred text or an imaginative reconstruction of the scene and episode narrated. Its goal is always the practical application to the present…"

The group of poems I shared with Rabbi Ruth some thirty plus years ago was just simply letting women of the Bible speak out of their own experience. After the number of women had grown to twenty-four personalities I sent the manuscript to various book publishers (in my utter greenness as a writer) with the obvious result: rejection. As a result, I set manuscript aside and over the years I published a number of the individual poems in various magazines. During that time, I came across the quote, "Publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon." This was my cue to forget about book publishing.

The miracle of publication which had been sleeping in a dark drawer rose to possibility when I read about a call for poetry submissions. My poem was accepted and months later I opened the brown paper envelope to find After Shocks: Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. Heaven: I was in the same company as two poets who had been U.S. Poet's Laureate, Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Donald Hall.

I kept in touch with the After Shocks' editor, Tom Lombardo, by e-mail; sending him suggestions where to market the book for which he was very grateful. I downloaded then printed out book description copies and hand delivered them to various libraries in town. My working relationship with Tom grew to the point where I decided it was time for a courtesy phone call. Sometime during our conversation, he asked if I had ever published a book of poems. I told him no but that I had planned to send him my manuscript much later, after the flurry of marketing the anthology had died down. When I told him the topic, he was very interested in what I had done, and the manuscript was in the mail the next morning. Months later an e-mail popped up. "I am now poetry editor at Press 53. Could you resend the manuscript?" I couldn't get to the post office fast enough. Tom responded some time later with his now famous "ruler" phone call. "You want how many more poems?" I squeaked out. "You can do this, Sister. Try for four or five. So don't make come down there with my ruler." The proverbial dam broke, I wrote and the manuscript was sent. Early in our relationship over these poems, Tom asked: "After Eve, who is the second woman named in the Bible?" This was another important spark for my writing.

Then came the "we need to talk about editing what would be a good time for you" e-mail. The planned one hour turned into three as we discussed needed corrections and possible deletions. When that was done, I made another trip to post office with the she: robed and wordless manuscript.

Many feminist Biblical scholars have voiced their anger that so few women appear in the storyline of the Scriptures. However, I contend they are there. Most are shy creatures but with a little coaxing of empathic imagination or midrash, they will come forward. Yet imagination does not have total free reign. Such gentle coaxing must also remain faithful to the text; nor is it a substitute for personal knowledge and research.

While the Bible is sacred literature, it is also a notoriously tight fisted text. I discovered it is more like a detective story with clues of who, what, when and where staring me right in my face. Thus, the need was not only one of research but also patient and frequent rereading of the text itself. Finally, my respect for the living and breathing text of the storyline helped me also discover questions such as: what kind of woman would have married the man in the parable of the prodigal son? Thus, midrash became the fertile soil out of which my ladies arose.

These scholars, no doubt, will either disagree with me on no uncertain terms or dismiss me outright. I am not really worried either way. After all, early in the miracle of my book, a rabbi told me my midrash was as good as anyone else's. And a female rabbi at that. Some thirty years later I have a miracle of feminine voices speaking out of their own experience–a poetic rendition of Biblical history. Theirs were the experiences that would not only help shape that history but would also lead up to and embrace another Rabbi who included women in His life and ministry.

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