From my narrow place

Photo: Douglas B. Barbour/USFWS

Min ha-metzar karati Yah
Anani va-merchav Yah.

From the narrow place, I called: “God!”
God answered me in the wide-open space.
—Psalm 118:5

Life is a journey, they say, and that has never seemed truer to me. This phase of my life bundles so many transitions: from child-rearing to my daughters’ independence; from the job I left last summer to whatever comes next professionally; from perfectionism to a kinder, gentler approach to myself and the rest of the world; from nagging unwellness through diagnosis to (I hope) restored health.

Notice how I conceive of this journey. Each transition has a “from” and a “to,” a beginning and an end. A destination, if not a goal.

But that’s not how life’s journeys really unfold. Often I don’t know where I’m going, let alone how long it will take or what will happen along the way. Sometimes I don’t know where I’ve been until I’ve left it behind.

And now I’m learning what can happen when prayers are answered and a narrow place—an unbearably tight spot—gives way to wide-open space: confusion. New fears. Bewilderment, which sounds an awful lot like “wilderness.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. When the Israelites left Egypt—whose Hebrew name is Mitzrayim, or “narrow places”—they escaped slavery, tyranny, and infanticide. Were they happy? For about five minutes. Then the complaints began: This water tastes terrible. What will we eat? Manna from heaven? Again? Moses, what were you thinking when you brought us out here? Let’s go back to Egypt.

The grumbling continued for the entire 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert before reaching the promised land. In hindsight, the straitjacket of slavery felt like the comfort of home. The wide-open wilderness was confusing, frightening, bewildering.

It was just over a year ago, at Passover 2015/5775, when the first seeds of the Mary Oliver Challenge planted themselves in my head and heart. I read her poem “Wild Geese” and was stunned by its sense of belonging—of loving the world and oneself as they are, not just as we wish they were. Could I have that? I wanted to try.

A few months ago, in the dead of winter, a picture came into my mind. It was as though I had been walking for a long time on a hard, rocky path, through mountains and forests, when I suddenly rounded a bend and saw a vista. A prairie, maybe, or a wheat field, stretching as far as I could see.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see around that bend in my mind’s eye: another mountain, a forest, a river? A destination. Maybe not a goal, but a place, a to that I could head toward. Not this wide-open space, reaching to the horizon, with nothing else visible.

The landscape was neither harsh nor forbidding. It had a subtle beauty. But the sheer vastness was daunting. I had no idea how far the expanse continued, or what might lie beyond it. And it all looked the same, endlessly the same. (Manna for breakfast? Again?) I knew that couldn’t be true, because nature is infinitely varied. But I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to tell what this wide-open space really looked like until I was in the midst of it—fully committed to the journey.

So came the sobering realization that my bundle of transitions is not just a path connecting “from” and “to.” It’s a whole big life stage of its own. On the journey of the past four years I’ve climbed mountains and forded rivers and tunneled deep, deep into my cold, dark psyche. Now, just when I think I’m getting somewhere, I turn a corner and find that I’m—where? Somewhere, I guess. But nowhere I recognize. And nowhere near a destination.

The beginning of this week was Pesach sheni, the “second Passover.” In biblical times, some people couldn’t fulfill their Passover obligations because they were ritually impure or “on a long journey.” A month later, they got a second chance.

So perhaps this is, for me, a renewed opportunity to understand the meaning of “life is a journey.” There’s a reason we retell the Exodus story every year. We’re each supposed to feel that we, personally, were redeemed from Mitzrayim, our narrow places. There’s no guarantee, however, about where we go next.

I will never stop searching for the promised land. I think that when I truly understand “life is a journey,” I’ll know that the promised land is where you make it.

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

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