There's wisdom of the cafe and there's wisdom of the bathtub

Under lockdown, Portland writer pivots to pandemic poetry — from her bathtub

Oregon artist Alicia Jo Rabins’ new project is topical poems steeped in Jewish culture, yearning, and… bath salts

Poet Alicia Jo Rabins. (Courtesy/ Alicia J. Rose)
Poet Alicia Jo Rabins. (Courtesy/ Alicia J. Rose)

PORTLAND — Most days Alicia Jo Rabins, a multidisciplinary artist and Jewish educator based in Portland, Oregon, grabs a seat at book-themed coffee shop The Stacks and orders a café au lait. With a clutter-free table away from children and chores, Rabins finds the solitude to get some writing done.

Her last caffeine-fueled session was Friday, March 13, when she polished off a few more pages of an upcoming non-fiction book on the early years of parenthood viewed through the lens of Jewish text. That was the same day that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools closed statewide for two weeks due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. They have since been closed for the remainder of the academic year.

“To have the schools closed was a really big shift,” Rabins, a recipient of a 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship, told The Times of Israel. “I had a sense that this was my last real work day.”

Sure enough, the accomplished violinist, singer and composer quickly found that the sudden shift to full-time homeschooling two children amidst the chaos of a news cycle serving up an endless diet of doom and gloom put the kibosh on her typical writing habit.

On Monday, March 16, after another long day of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, Rabins drew a hot bath, poured in salts and essential oils, lit a few candles, turned on some music, and began writing poems. That was the soapy launch of an impromptu series of “Bathtub Pandemic Poems” that she shares on Facebook and Instagram.

At a time when most are staying at home and yearning for a way to process the bleak headlines, the poems have quickly drawn social media admirers and rebroadcasts on US public radio in Oregon and Chicago.

“I normally write with more linguistic gymnastics — with wryness or a little bit of a distance,” said Rabins, the author of two published books of poetry. “But there is a wisdom of the cafe and there is a wisdom of the bathtub.”

Some of Rabins’s cafe wisdom is also receiving increased attention: this month her three-album “Girls in Trouble” song series, which interprets the stories of women in the Bible, was launched online as The Girls in Trouble Curriculum. The “educational experience” includes 24 study units, which accompany the Rabins’ indie-folk/art-pop songs about the troubled biblical women’s lives.

As US National Poetry Month in April coincided with Passover — an undeniably strange one for Jews worldwide unable to travel or physically attend seders with family and friends — Rabins honed in on the holiday’s newly-resonant story. In “Passover 5780,” she recounts how the Israelites painted their doorposts with lamb’s blood to avoid the final plague, juxtaposing it with hand-washing and wiping down shopping cart handles.

Rabins embraces the bathtub writing sessions as an of-the-moment mikveh-esque ritual. Such innovation is a practice she teaches her bat and bar mitzvah students, who she encourages to invent their own rituals alongside the ones that are handed down by tradition.

“There is a power of ritual that responds to the needs of the moment and can be a great complement to those rituals that are responding to universal human needs,” Rabins said.

Even with such rituals, Rabins is hardly immune from refreshing Twitter for the latest anxious updates. In “Exodus in a Time of Plague,” she writes: “I used to study the holy texts / Night and day / Certain there was some / Wisdom inside those words / Which would make me live / Fully for the first time // Now I immerse myself / In the news / With the same solemn / Devotion I once gave / The rabbis I have become / Acolyte of epidemiologists.”

But in “On Breathing,” the Jewish tradition does provide solace in the current moment: “…Hear me, ancestors / Who lived through danger times: I’m ready for you now. / All these years I’ve carried your worries in my bones. / Now I need your love, your thousand-year view. / Tell me it’s going to be OK. Remind me you made it / Through, and we will too. Teach me to breathe.”

Ultimately, Rabins sees spirituality and poetry offering similar roles in times of crisis.

“In normal times, they can seem like extras to getting through the day,” she said. “But at moments of heightened experience — whether challenge or joy — we turn to ritual, religion, spirituality, and also poetry.”

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