These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons of Jacob’s issue came to 70, Joseph being already in Egypt.
So began last week’s Torah reading in synagogues — physical or virtual — around the world.
It’s the beginning of the book of Exodus, the harrowing and thrilling story of how the ancient Israelites left bondage in Egypt; struggled against God, their leaders, and themselves; and finally began to forge an identity as a people responsible for and to itself. Think “The Prince of Egypt” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs”: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but yourselves can free your minds.
So much drama. And yet the book of Exodus begins not with God splitting the sea, not with the plagues, not with Pharoah or the birth of Moses. It begins with genealogy: a list of ancestors, an accounting of who was where at what time.
For missing the mark with idle fingers that play solitaire instead of writing … For missing the mark with stubborn legs that stay planted on the couch instead of carrying me to bed on time … For missing the mark with an unsatisfied mouth that snacks late at night … For missing the mark with hands that have not even begun taking down the sukkah … For missing the mark with narrow eyes that see all of my flaws but few of my virtues …
For all of these, I forgive myself, I pardon myself, and I purge myself of shame and guilt.
Well, not really. But I’m trying.
For the first time since this blog’s inception in 2015, I did not write about the Jewish season of repentance and return. I didn’t write about Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. I didn’t write about Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year. I didn’t write about Yom Kippur, the day of atonement on whose liturgy I based the confessions above. I didn’t even write about Sukkot, my favorite holiday, the Jewish Thanksgiving (although I’m sitting, as I write this, in our sukkah — the temporary hut that commemorates the fall harvest and underscores the transient nature of our lives).
When I read books and watch movies, I never skip ahead to see what happens. I want to find out what happens when it happens. To understand the ending, I want to understand what comes before.
But today, as I did my morning yoga stretches in the still-warm-enough backyard, I heard a faint, persistent honking. Looking up, I saw a near-perfect V formation of wild geese, flying south.
Instead of reminding me of what comes next — late fall, cold weather, winter — it made me think of the end of “Wild Geese,” the Mary Oliver poem that inspired this blog:
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Decades ago, I belonged to a therapy group that drew on both talk and movement. One week we did an exercise in which group members took turns leading the others in improvised movement: dancing, swooping, jumping, anything they felt like doing. When a leader had enough, they would pass the role on to someone else.
Afterward, as we sat in a circle, people said that I seemed half-hearted when it was my turn to lead. I confessed that they were right: I was tired, my back hurt, and I didn’t feel like moving at all. I felt like lying down on my back and resting.
Well then, they asked: why didn’t you do that?
My response: I didn’t think I was supposed to. I thought we were supposed to move, and so I moved, even though I wanted to lie still.
In a way, that’s the story of my life: trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, or what I think they expect, even when I need something different. (Well, that’s part of the story of my life. Another part is where I disregard what other people think and feel, because I’m so sure I know better. Fortunately, I think that part is mostly behind me.)
“Falling out of the pose is part of the pose,” I once heard a yoga teacher say.
This advice goes beyond “if at first you don’t succeed…”
For sure, trying and trying again are essential to the practice of yoga — that’s why it’s called practice. And for sure, there is an ideal way to do any given pose.
But the saying about falling out of the pose contends that there’s more than one way to succeed. That if you can’t achieve the ideal, or a modification of the ideal, you can still succeed, simply by trying. That trying and failing is a form of success. And that falling out of the pose is not a question of if but when: there will be times when you have to make repeated attempts. There will be times when a pose simply eludes you, no matter how hard you try.
In a novel I recently read, a character’s hands were perpetually clenched. She wasn’t looking for a fistfight. She was steeling herself for the next struggle that her hard, sad, painful life would bring.
For me, it’s not the hands that clench involuntarily. It’s my jaw, my neck, my shoulders, my glutes, my legs.
“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese,” the poem that inspired me to quit my job, start this blog, and try to live Oliver’s advice. Mostly I have understood that advice metaphorically: giving myself permission to do what makes me feel whole and happy, and not to make the to-do list — or worrying about the to-do list — my main focus.
Lately I am also thinking about the literal, physical animal of my body. It is not a soft animal. (Unless we’re talking about flab.) Deconditioned though I am after years of chronic illness, many of my muscles are not soft. They are tense, hard, painful. Continue reading →
I have a recurring dream in which I’m at someone’s house — sometimes I live there in the dream, although not in real life; sometimes I’m a guest — and I need to take out the trash.
Well, not the trash exactly. Not stinky smelly nasty rotting garbage. Sometimes it’s recyclables, piled up in a garage or basement or storeroom. Sometimes it’s yard waste — bags and bags and bags of it.
Either way, it’s a large accumulation, weeks’ or more likely months’ worth. And now it’s the eve of the pickup day, and I need to shlep it all out to the curb. It will take numerous trips, and it’s getting late, and even if the people who live in the house (my parents, in some dreams) aren’t worried about it, I know it’s my job to clear it out.
I don’t remember having that dream last night, but I woke up this morning thinking about it. Why, I wondered, do I repeatedly dream about this mundane household chore? Continue reading →
In genealogy research, a cardinal rule is: work from what you know. Paper records and family members’ recollections will get you further than hunches and what-ifs.
In my life, a cardinal rule is: ask for help. Even if you’re afraid that no one will respond, or that their responses will be disappointing, or that you’ll look stupid for asking. Truly the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll come up empty — the same place you’ll be if you don’t ask.
When I recently learned these lessons — again — they produced the breakthrough I’ve been searching for.
In 1935, my grandmother’s brother ambushed his ex-wife and her boyfriend, shot and wounded them both, then killed himself.
Around 1975, I heard the story for the first and last time. You can imagine that it made an impression.
Sometime in the 2010s, I decided to investigate this family tragedy/scandal/secret. Then I decided to write about it, more for therapeutic reasons than anything else. I finished a draft that I liked a lot, but it was written for myself and family. Revising it for a general readership turned out to be harder than I expected. (By this time my Lyme-induced brain fog and anxiety had kicked in big-time.) So I sat on it. For years.
Last May, I finished a new draft. But I wasn’t sure where to submit it for publication. So I sat on it again.
Why the hesitation, the procrastination? Well, you know: perfectionism. Fear of failure. The “not good enough” feeling. I had to get past those obstacles and a few others: concern about what some family members would think. The notion that I need to get paid for this labor of love. The notion that it should go in a “real” publication. The need to find the right photos in an old album, remember how to use my scanner, and put the whole thing together.