Fault Lines

It’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault.

Sometimes I believe that, sort of. But mostly that’s when things are going well, and there’s a lot less to blame myself for.

At times like this — times of backache, of fatigue, of having an idea in the morning for what to write about, but forgetting it by dinnertime — it is so hard to escape the feeling that it’s my fault. If only I went to bed earlier. If only I stopped eating before bed. If only I took better care of myself in unspecified other ways. Then my body and my brain would have a chance to heal, and I would feel better.

“You’re very ambitious,” someone said to me a few months ago. I was surprised and a little taken aback. In my mind, I’m someone who used to do a lot — but never enough, of course — and can no longer do a lot. Some days and weeks and months I can do very little.

But she’s right, there are lots of projects I want to work on. In that way, I’m driven. And the fatigue and the backache and the memory problems are not all that hold me back. There are also the fault lines: the narrow ravines and yawning chasms that I’m afraid to cross.

Fault lines like: I can’t start on one project because three or four others also call out for my attention. If I’m working on one, I’m neglecting the others. And that’s my fault.

Or: I can’t start on a project because I’m intimidated. I’ve never done it before. I don’t know what I’m doing and it might not be good enough. I might not even finish. And that’s my fault.

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Unify our hearts

In the old days, I was healthy, strong, and oblivious to the terror that lurked inside me.

Every morning, I would put on my tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (hard to explain) and recite an abbreviated version of the Jewish morning liturgy. I dutifully included all the elements that are considered essential to fulfill the commandment of daily prayer. I stood when you’re supposed to stand, sat when you’re supposed to sit. Sometimes my mind wandered, but I tried to focus on the meaning of the Hebrew words, which I sort of understand.

Those words speak of gratitude and appreciation: for the morning light, a functioning body, clothes to wear, sun and moon, rain in its proper time. They speak of God’s attributes: mercy, kindness, compassion. They ask for divine help in the form of forgiveness, health, prosperity, and aid in fighting our battles.

In the old days, I focused on the gratitude and the attributes.

I read the plea for healing as thanks for good health; the plea for prosperity as thanks for my comfortable life. And I read the traits ascribed to God as directives for how I should live: as God is compassionate, I should be compassionate. As God cares for us, I should care for others. I was unsure what I thought about God — I still am unsure — and it seemed best to read these prayers as an instruction manual: This is how I want to live my life. This is how I’m supposed to live my life.

It was a good approach. Jewish religious practice is, for me, a program for life. Morning prayer was a way of setting my daily intention to get with the program. It was a way of directing not only my thoughts but my actions. Although many of the prayers address God directly, I really was talking to myself.

A good approach — but it was missing something.

Then came The Crash: my protracted skid along the cliff’s edge of grief, stress, and chronic illness, trying all the while to follow that instruction manual for living my life. Eventually I skidded over the edge. But instead of a free fall, I tumbled down the mountain in slow motion, collecting injuries without realizing that I was absolutely, inevitably, headed for rock bottom.

Praying became different then. I wasn’t so much talking to myself, telling myself how I’m supposed to live. I started talking to God, or the universe, or whoever or whatever is out there.

I stuck with the gratitude where I could find it. But I also started asking for help.

I asked for healing. I asked for compassion, for mercy, for help in fighting my battles. I was pleading, really, even though I don’t believe in a God who answers prayers in the way we usually think of.

And this shift in how I prayed was part of my healing. Not because a supernatural being heard me and responded, but because I was acknowledging my weakness. My vulnerability. My desperation. My need for help.

It took a long time, but eventually my brain and body responded to this shift in my outlook. And it transferred to — or reflected — other parts of my life, where I began acknowledging my vulnerability to actual human beings. And asking for help. And saying no to requests and invitations and my own list of things I should be doing. Even though saying no went against my interpretation of the instruction manual for how to live my life.

I couldn’t follow the program the way I used to. I needed a new program.

Yached l’vaveinu b’ahava u’l’yira et shemecha.

That’s a line from the morning liturgy. In English, it reads, Unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. It’s a prayer that ahava, love, and yira, fear or awe, come together in our hearts, working toward a unified purpose. (In prayerbook Hebrew, God’s “name” connotes divine essence and power.)

In this one line, I see my two different approaches to prayer.

In the old days, I followed the yira, a combination of awe and fear. Reminding myself how to live, I did not realize how terrified I was of falling short. I set impossible ideals and then, naturally, couldn’t live up to them. But I kept trying. My fear was not of God’s punishment but of failure — or, you could say, fear of being human.

I was missing the ahava, the love.

In my darkest days, I turned to ahava. I could no longer act upon the motivation that fear produced. I simply needed love, compassion, mercy. I needed to let myself feel the unconditional love of my friends and family, to realize their love did not depend on what I could accomplish. I needed to love myself.

The line I’m quoting, Yached l’vaveinu, comes from a prayer called Ahava Rabba, or “abundant love.” It begins: Ahava rabba ahavtanu: “You love us with abundant love.” The prayer also ends with ahava. In between, the word repeats three more times.

In addition to love, Ahava Rabba stresses God’s compassion and grace toward human beings. It asks for discernment and understanding. And it predicts (or demands) that, through God’s deliverance, we will rejoice and be happy.

Yira, the word for fear and awe, appears only once. That’s in the line quoted above, where it is paired with — and, crucially, follows — ahava.

So this is a prayer about love — love abundantly bestowed, not love that has to be earned. The prayer asks that in our hearts, in our intentions, we bring together the love and the fear. But love comes first, last, and in between.

In recent years, as my physical and emotional healing progress, my prayer practice has shifted again.

As in the old days, I’m using the prayers to remind myself of what I need to remember. But now, instead of directing my actions, it’s more about directing my thoughts and feelings — directing my heart.

Yoga teachers say the rest period at the end of each class is a time to “integrate” everything the body, mind, and spirit have done during the poses and meditations. The hypnotherapist I work with says the same thing about the last part of each session.

In a way, that’s another form of yached l’vaveinu — unifying our hearts, integrating, allowing everything to come together.

My prayer practice these days is much less consistent than it used to be. That’s to my detriment. I know the daily morning practice is good for me, especially when I’m able to unify my heart with love and with awe.

But as so often happens, what’s good for me becomes a should: a source of pressure, a poke in the gut to get with the program. And too often, when I’m not with the program, a source of shame.

The very next line after yached l’vaveinu is: V’lo nevosh l’olam va-ed: “And then we will not feel shame, eternally, forever.”

Amen.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

Leaf Grief

In praise of dead trees.

2020 was a bad year for the trees in my life.

I know: it was a horrible year for everyone, filled with death and chronic illness and devastating poverty and, for those of us fortunate enough to escape all of the above, the fear and isolation that come from living through a deadly plague.

But right now, I want to talk about our trees.

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These Are The Names

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 Song”: 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.

Some of the matriarchs in my family tree.
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Pardon me

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).

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‘The family of things’

I’m skipping ahead to the end.

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.


Photo: Txllxt TxllxT/Wikimedia Commons

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.

My “Wild Geese” journey — my Mary Oliver Challenge — began at the beginning of the poem:

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Hineini: here I am

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.img_20200428_170718701_hdr-1

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.)

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Have a good day

“Have a good day.”

We bestow that wish upon strangers: cashiers, call-center employees, mail carriers. Or, if we work in one of those service jobs, upon customers. When I say it, I mean it.

SmileyEven if the person hasn’t helped me very much, even if I thought they were rude, I do want them to have a good day. Especially if they’re stuck in a crummy job where people treat them poorly.

What does that “good day” involve? I suppose I’m extending a wish that the person’s needs be met: financial security, good health, fulfillment on the job and/or in other pursuits. Love and happiness.

What I wish for myself, however, is a different story.

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Falling out of the pose

“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.yoga-woman-tree-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 external-content.duckduckgo.comtrying. 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.

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‘The soft animal of your body’

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.

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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