Though my father and my mother forsake me, The Lord will gather me in.
These plaintive lines help usher in Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. As we prepare for the new year through reflection and self-examination, we recite Psalm 27 daily. It’s a masterpiece of hope and yearning and soul-rattling fear, bravely masquerading as faith.
Five years ago, Elul arrived just two weeks after my father’s sudden death. Those lines evoked my pain, my feeling of abandonment.
In the past couple of years the bereftitude receded, and I could focus on other parts of the psalm. But I knew that eventually, my mother would also have to leave the land of the living.
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.
“Stop Assuming I’m Lazy—I Have a Chronic Illness.” That’s the headline on an article I read last night by Esmé Weijun Wang, a writer with persistent Lyme disease. It’s not readers who assume Wang is lazy. It’s Wang herself.
Despite “fevers, moderate to severe nausea, weakness, fatigue, and a cornucopia of other symptoms,” Wang manages to work part-time and even travel on business occasionally. Yet even as she lies in bed, too sick to sit up, she fears “that I’m secretly slothful and am using chronic illness to disguise the sick rot of laziness within myself.”
Right now, Wang tells herself, her work is taking care of herself. But “I continue to live in a society that praises the art of getting things done over all else—including wellness and rest—and these are values I can’t seem to shake.”
This morning I paced around my house, as I often do, trying to settle into my daily prayers.
Most days I’m distracted by my to-do list and the feeling that I should be getting on with the day. This morning, tired and achy and a little sad and lonely, I could tell that it was a day to take it easy. A day to quiet my mind—the voice pestering me to get things done—and listen to the slow, sad, tired voices of my body and my spirit.
It’s been almost a year since I quit my job and launched this blog to chronicle my journey. Inwardly, it has been a year of exploration and discovery, even revelation. A year of deep valleys but also some peaks, or at least foothills.
Outwardly, though, it looks like a desert year. A year of unemployment (semi-voluntary though it is). A year of illness and long-term treatment that is only beginning to show results. A year of slow progress on this Mary Oliver Challenge, the challenge of learning to be myself and to love what I love.
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.”
Over lunch, I was telling a friend about my inner critic: the voice that tells me I’m not good enough, the voice that demands that I should do more and better of whatever I do.
“That’s your yetzer hara,”she replied.
I was startled by that context for the Hebrew phrase meaning “evil impulse”—the Jewish version of the cartoon devil on your shoulder. I considered my inner critic to be well-intentioned, if overly harsh. Sure, it calls me names sometimes—lazy, selfish, irresponsible—but isn’t that simply a misguided effort to help me be the opposite of lazy, selfish, and irresponsible? Isn’t that voice trying to help me do good things? How could it be evil?
Last year and the year before, the Jewish High Holy Days brought an especially welcome respite from the stress I felt in my daily life. Now, I’m trying to make my daily life a respite—that’s my self-styled Mary Oliver Challenge. So Rosh Hashana felt different this year. It was warm and communal, as always. But instead of providing a break from busyness, the holiday itself felt busy.
It was on Wednesday morning, after the two-day holiday ended, that I recognized this most clearly.
The previous two mornings, I curtailed my usual stretching-and-yoga practice so that I could get to synagogue—and I paid for that choice in the form of achy muscles. On the morning after, I indulged in the full practice, and my body thanked me for it. Then I put on my tallis and tefillin for my solitary morning prayers.
It took a long time to settle in. Thoughts kept running through my head—many of them good thoughts, feelings of gratitude, useful insights. I felt the privilege of sitting on my deck, in my beautiful backyard on a glorious late-summer day, with a cup of the delicious and fortifying coffee that I’m trying to wean myself from before next week’s Yom Kippur fast. I felt the privilege of having that time to devote to my self, my psyche, my soul. And as my thoughts gradually came to rest and I settled into myself, I realized how much I had missed that reflection time during the previous two days.
One thing I ask of the Lord; I will seek it: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
It is the season of t’shuva, commonly translated as repentance but really meaning “returning.” Starting on the first of Elul—the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year—we hear a daily wakeup blast from the shofar, and we recite Psalm 27, including the lines above. And I ask myself: what does it mean to live in God’s house? Not in some hoped-for afterlife, but here and now, all the days of my life?
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.