Elul arrived on my doorstep this year with unwelcome baggage.
The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul is a time for reflection, for looking back on the past even as we look ahead to the coming new year. It’s the season of return. That’s the literal meaning of t’shuva, the seasonal theme usually translated as repentance.
As summer turned toward fall, as the earth turned away from the sun, as leaves turned brown and lifeless, I felt a deep sense of loss. That was four weeks ago. Now Elul itself is ending, turning toward Rosh Hashana and the month of Tishrei. And the sadness remains.
In the past four years I have lost so much: my father, my good health, my energy, my self-image as a competent, hard-working person who can be relied upon to do what needs doing.
This new year of 5777 starts out as another year of health problems, another year of not knowing exactly what is wrong or what will fix it. Another year of fatigue and muscle pain, anxiety and disrupted sleep. Another year of unpredictable ups and downs. Another year—the beginning of Year Five—of diminished capacity and diminished self-image. Another year of not feeling like myself.
But my self is more than a bundle of health problems. This season of introspection calls me to step back from my frustration and notice what has changed, what has gotten better, not just what remains challenging and discouraging.
First, 5776 brought significant changes on the health front. I finally found doctors who take me seriously and don’t think my problems are all in my head. I finally have a tentative diagnosis: one or more chronic tick-borne infections, similar to Lyme disease. After 18 weeks of antibiotic treatment, the pain is much reduced and I’m generally sleeping better. I have to remind myself of those improvements, especially when I feel as though fatigue is swallowing my life.
Just as important, many of my relationships have deepened in the past year—thanks in part to this blog.
Baring my soul, as I do here, is a radical departure from my lifelong habit of trying to hide my imperfections. Putting my fears and failings into writing—and then clicking “publish”—makes it easier for me to open up in person as well. And my new openness gives other people permission to show their own vulnerabilities.
I am also learning to recognize when I’m setting expectations for myself that no one else holds for me, and how to step away from that burden. People don’t expect me to fix their problems; they just want my love and support. That much I can give—and I want to.
My yoga practice, too, has deepened. So has my meditation. I still hesitate to call that a practice. But when a medical technician observed my closed eyes and deep breathing during a recent procedure and asked, “Do you meditate?” I answered, “Yes.” Not “sort of” or “a little”; just “yes.” Yoga and meditation help me remember who I am. They help me turn away from anxiety and doubt and return to myself. Without that help, these medical adventures would be much harder to cope with.
And then there’s my prayer practice. I not sure it has deepened in the past year. But certainly it is evolving.
For roughly 15 years I sat down at home every day, wrapped in my tallis (prayer shawl), and recited the traditional Jewish morning service—sometimes by rote, sometimes with deep feeling, but always with a commitment to fulfilling a religious obligation as well as a commitment to nurture awareness, gratitude, and good intentions.
In the past year I have loosened my ties to the liturgy. Some days I focus on just a few phrases that resonate. Some days I meditate instead of praying. Rarely do I recite the entire (abbreviated) service that was my practice for so long.
Some days, I don’t get around to it at all—and that’s a mistake. Not because I have neglected a religious obligation, but because I have neglected myself.
Like yoga, prayer and meditation help me find myself. (Re)turning inward, past my thoughts to my deeper fears and yearnings, helps me remember who I am—the real me. (Re)turning outward, past my daily tasks, helps me remember that I am connected to the realms of nature and spirit—that I have a place in the universe, a place of being that doesn’t depend on doing.
And that’s the Mary Oliver Challenge that I have set for myself, inspired by her poem “Wild Geese”: to take my place in the world.
We find our place, I believe, by returning—again and again—to our true selves and our selves-in-the-making. We return to our good intentions, to our relationships, to what we love.
Lately, however, I feel as though I’m living in a state of suspension. I’m waiting for my health and energy to return. Waiting to see what my doctor will recommend next, and whether it will provide a bigger boost than the previous treatments. Waiting to feel like myself again. Then, I think—then I can begin to live the way I want to live.
I still have the expectation that I will feel better in the coming year, and the hope that I will recover fully. But lately, that hope can be like the sun on an overcast day: I know it’s there, but I can’t feel it.
In this self-imposed limbo, I sometimes feel as if I’m not really living at all. I’m just existing. Doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions, and household chores crowd into the center of my mind and psyche. Everything else—prayer and meditation, music, walking in the woods, the writing I want to do—gets shoved to the margins. Even though I’m not working, some days my energy level is so low that it is hard to get beyond the have-tos. On other days, anxiety about the have-tos chokes off the flow of mental energy that allows me to spend time doing what I love.
This is the opposite of how I want to arrange my life and my mind. Instead of bumping along between chores and appointments, I want to focus on what makes me feel good, slotting the have-tos in between. That’s the meaning of the Mary Oliver Challenge, the poet’s invocation to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
And so I return to the stark, simple truths that are so hard to remember, and even harder to live by.
I say I don’t feel like myself. In truth, I am myself. However I feel, that is myself.
I say I need live in the present rather than clinging to a healthy, busy past or anticipating a healthy, busy future. In truth, there is no life but the present. The here and now are what I’ve got. Hineni, I say: here I am. Hineni.
And so I must return. I return to writing. I return to community, going to shul for the holidays and reaching out to friends for companionship and support. And I return to words that have sustained us Jews for millenia:
Hashivenu Adonai elecha v’nashuva.
Hadesh yamenu k’kedem.
Turn us toward you, Adonai, and we will turn.
Renew our days as of old.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.