It’s the end of the summer. Kids are going back to school. Teachers are going back to work.
I’m on a different calendar.
For sure, I am preparing for the Jewish new year, 5776, which begins in less than three weeks (!). But for the first time in 20 years, neither of my daughters is beginning a new year as a student. And I, having quit my job in July, am not heading back to work.
That feels odd. I am beginning to feel stirrings of when-will-this-experiment-in-voluntary-unemployment end, and what-will-I-do-next, and when-will-I-start-making-some-money. These stirrings are unsettling and unwelcome, because they don’t come from my heart or my gut, from a feeling that I’m ready to move onto the next thing. They come from my mind, specifically the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough. That in everything I do, I should do more of it, and better. That I am what I do—if I’m doing not much to speak of, then that’s what I am.
On the train back from Baltimore the other day, I decided to start editing a bunch of old family photos. I clicked on the tiny icons, not knowing what each picture was until I opened it. There was my grandmother’s cousin George, who just died this summer at age 90, in his Navy uniform from World War II. There was my mother’s Uncle Andy in what looks like a World War I cavalry uniform, complete with riding crop. There were Mom, my siblings, and me on the beach, circa 1967.
And then, unexpectedly, a much more recent shot: Mom and Dad, gray-haired, standing with Mom’s cousin Peggy, Peggy’s husband, and Mom’s sister. The three women all have their heads tilted in laughter. The men are looking at the camera, also laughing.
I was jolted by this image of my father—alive and happy, his hands on my mother’s shoulders, enjoying himself. Looking not too different from the last time I saw him. My eyes filled with tears. Sometimes the grief still comes without warning, the way his death did three years ago.
As a child in a devout and open-minded Catholic family, I believed in God as I believed in my parents: unquestioningly.
At age 18, I suffered a crisis of faith. I had been taught in church that there was an Old Testament God—wrathful, vengeful, violent—and a New Testament God, the one we followed, who was generous, forgiving, and endlessly loving. Lacking sophistication and spiritual guidance, I couldn’t square these ideas with my belief that there is only one God. If the Old Testament/New Testament split is at the heart of Christianity, I decided, I could no longer consider myself Christian. It was an agonizing conclusion. But I still believed in God, unquestioningly.
Some 15 years later, when I decided to become Jewish, the beit din (rabbinic court) asked me about my observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. They asked about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. They asked what I thought about Jesus. (My reply: I don’t think about him very much.) If the rabbis had asked whether I believed in God, I would have said yes. But they didn’t. After the beit din, I went to the mikveh and emerged as a Jew, my faith in God still unquestioned.
I’m six weeks into the Mary Oliver Challenge. How’s it going?
I’ve been away a lot. The challenge of being myself, of believing that I am good enough—with all of my shortcomings, needs, and desires—goes with me wherever I go. But it’s strongest when I’m at home. That’s when everyone else is carrying out their normal lives of work and family responsibilities, while I live in this artificially self-centric world I have created.
In Mary Oliver’s poetic words, the challenge is to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. So the very first step is to persuade myself that the challenge itself is a good idea: that taking time off to work toward self-acceptance is is neither selfish and hedonistic, on the one hand, nor self-destructive on the other.