Poems held her in her son's first year

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LANESBOROUGH -- When you're a new mother, your infant upends your world. And when you're breast-feeding at 3 a.m., trying to soothe a colicky baby to sleep, the night may seem endless.

Isolation and winter don't help either, according to Rachel Barenblat of Lanesborough. Yet, through the thick fog of sleep deprivation and a tenacious case of post-partum depression, Barenblat, who is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams and a published poet with an MFA from the Bennington writing program, managed to write a poem a week during the first year of her son's life.

"Waiting to Unfold" (Phoenicia Publishing, 2013) is a lyrical collection of poetry that slices to the heart of parenting, capturing everything from the banality (and humor) of changing diapers to the ferocity of maternal protection to the nerve-ending jag of self-doubt.

But more importantly, Barenblat said, the book is a letter to her now three-year-old son, Drew: a chronicle of memories that would otherwise have been lost through the chaos and ritual of raising a child.

"It's a little astounding. I find myself grateful to have written these poems," Barenblat said. "I would have forgotten all this, but when I read the poems it takes me back, right to that moment in time. I recently gave a reading to a group of senior citizens, mostly women, who haven't had children in the house for 50 or 60 years, but they said the poems made them remember. There's something universal in this whole experience of mothering."

Despite what this modern culture of helicopter parents and do-it-all women would have us believe, Barenblat said having a newborn in the house isn't "all rainbows and unicorns." Many of the poems from her collection address the shadowy specter of postpartum depression. In "Besieged," she writes:

Seven weeks in

I am rubble, strafed

by a round-cheeked pilot

who attacks at random

with his air-siren wail.

These words are music to Jane Shiyah's ears. Shiyah is a recently retired school councilor (from Lanesborough Elementary), and also a member at Congregation Beth Israel. She has taken to memorizing lines from her rabbi's poetry book, almost a means of spiritual comfort.

"I wish there had been a mother-mentor who put this book in our hands when I was a new mother," Shiya said. "It touches on everything that's a challenge. There's so many things that women don't talk about -- miscarriage, depression, nursing. When you have a baby, there's nothing you can do but respond, no matter how exhausted you are. And here is Rachel, who is a rabbi, who has enormous faith, and even that wasn't enough when she was going through her hardest time."

But Barenblat did get through it, thanks in part to her her husband and her mother-in-law, who held Drew while his mother slept, and to Barenblat's own mother, who, on a visit from Texas, when Drew was just two months old, told her frazzled daughter that something was definitely wrong.

"She said ‘this is harder for you than it should be. You need to get help,' " Barenblat recalled. "At the time I didn't think things would get better. I thought that our lives, mine and my son's, would be like that indefinitely. It was an unbelievable relief when I got help. Within a matter of weeks my life had changed completely. I was no longer trapped in a bubble."

What Barenblat was able to put into eloquent, published words, most mothers don't allow themselves to even mention. This is why Liz Friedman, program director of MotherWoman -- a global support and advocacy group which is sponsoring book-related events, wants a copy of "Waiting to Unfold" to make it into the hands of mothers (and everyone working with new mothers). Just recently, Friedman brought some of the poems into a training she headed that focused on perinatal emotional crisis, which effects at least 50 percent of new mothers.

"We're trying to create an environment where women can speak and providers -- WIC administrators, pediatricians, OBGYNs -- are equipped to handle postpartum depression," Friedman said. "And what is always important for us as providers is to know women's stories. [Rachel] is putting a voice in our lived experiences. She names it. And there's a whole lot of love in that book of poetry."

And a whole lot of Drew. According to Shiya, since the boy's birth, her gentle rabbi has a new kind of spirituality, no matter the occasion.

"During the services, or in Torah study, there is always some reference to something about her and her son," she said. "She cannot separate her two lives. Nor should she. He belongs there, even when he's not there. He reminds her of something beautiful."

If you go ...

What: Poetry reading

When: Sunday, 6 p.m.

Where: The Book Loft,
332 Stockbridge Road,
Great Barrington

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 528-1521 www.thebookloft.com,

Rachel Barenblat's blog:
velveteenrabbi.com


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