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).

So I’ve missed the mark.

That’s the more accurate meaning of the Hebrew word het, commonly translated as “sin”: missing the mark. On Yom Kippur, we recite a litany of wrongdoing known as Al Het: “for the sins we have sinned,” or “for missing the mark.”

On Yom Kippur, of course, we ask God to forgive our wrongdoing. That’s only for offenses against God: Judaism insists that when we wrong other people, we must atone directly, person to person, asking them for forgiveness.

By that logic, I have plenty for which to forgive myself. And Judaism instructs that when someone sincerely asks for our forgiveness, we are required to grant it. Or at least to try.

So in the spirit of better late than never, this is my Al Het, my confession of transgressions against myself. Now that I’ve named them, I am duty-bound to pardon myself.

That’s much easier to say than to do. But as I’m learning, simply stating intentions as though they are reality can play a powerful role in making them so.

This is a truth I’ve been reluctant to embrace. Affirmations, the power of positive thinking — even now, these terms make me squirm. They seem so … squishy, so self-deluding, so Norman Vincent Peale.

But you know what? They work.

Not by magic. You can’t wish your way to feeling better. But you can change how your brain works, which changes how your body chemistry works, which changes how you feel. It takes practice, hard work, repetition. It takes doing it when you least feel like it and when you don’t really believe it’s going to help. Just like exercise or any other discipline that pays off over time.

You can do it by saying things like, “Even though I go to bed too late, I love and accept myself completely.”

Things like: “Even though this practice smacks of [fill in your favorite billionaire self-help guru], I am open to letting it work for me.”

Things like: “I am choosing to feel better by going to bed at 11.”

Even if these statements are not currently 100 percent accurate. Especially if they’re not. If they were, I wouldn’t need to say it.

And you know what else? This post is not late after all. It’s a new year: 5781 is less than one month old. Jews all over the world have finished the annual cycle of Torah reading and are starting over: “In the beginning.”

So pardon me while I discard some old habits of mind and body, and cultivate new and healthier ones. Or don’t pardon me — I’ll do it myself.

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

‘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:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

It was a journey of liberation, begun at Passover — the season of freedom — with the startling notion that I “do not have to be good.” The radical idea that I am good, and that I can free myself from the voice that constantly tells me I am not good enough.

Some months later, still wrestling with those opening exhortations, I moved into the next line: Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. And then, years later, the line after that: Meanwhile the world goes on.

But now I’m skipping ahead to the end. That doesn’t mean I’ve completed my journey. I don’t expect I ever will. It’s likely to be a journey of direction more than of destination. Certainly not a journey of perfection. Even the wild geese I saw this morning didn’t maintain their near-perfect V formation for long. Two birds joined the V, but then others broke away, and soon it looked more like a check mark with some doodles in the margin.

What it does mean, this skipping ahead, is that a word from the ending jumped out at me this morning. A word I had not previously focused on: family.

I have previously paid attention to the inclusiveness, the universal and unconditional embrace: Whoever you are, no matter how lonely. And I’ve noticed the last verb, announcing. We don’t have to earn our place or even claim it; our place exists, we are in it, whether we know it or not and even though it may shift as we join the flock or break away.

But family. How did I miss that? Over and over announcing: You are heading home again. You belong.

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

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
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.