Unify our hearts

In the old days, I was healthy, strong, and oblivious to the terror that lurked inside me.

Every morning, I would put on my tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (hard to explain) and recite an abbreviated version of the Jewish morning liturgy. I dutifully included all the elements that are considered essential to fulfill the commandment of daily prayer. I stood when you’re supposed to stand, sat when you’re supposed to sit. Sometimes my mind wandered, but I tried to focus on the meaning of the Hebrew words, which I sort of understand.

Those words speak of gratitude and appreciation: for the morning light, a functioning body, clothes to wear, sun and moon, rain in its proper time. They speak of God’s attributes: mercy, kindness, compassion. They ask for divine help in the form of forgiveness, health, prosperity, and aid in fighting our battles.

In the old days, I focused on the gratitude and the attributes.

I read the plea for healing as thanks for good health; the plea for prosperity as thanks for my comfortable life. And I read the traits ascribed to God as directives for how I should live: as God is compassionate, I should be compassionate. As God cares for us, I should care for others. I was unsure what I thought about God — I still am unsure — and it seemed best to read these prayers as an instruction manual: This is how I want to live my life. This is how I’m supposed to live my life.

It was a good approach. Jewish religious practice is, for me, a program for life. Morning prayer was a way of setting my daily intention to get with the program. It was a way of directing not only my thoughts but my actions. Although many of the prayers address God directly, I really was talking to myself.

A good approach — but it was missing something.

Then came The Crash: my protracted skid along the cliff’s edge of grief, stress, and chronic illness, trying all the while to follow that instruction manual for living my life. Eventually I skidded over the edge. But instead of a free fall, I tumbled down the mountain in slow motion, collecting injuries without realizing that I was absolutely, inevitably, headed for rock bottom.

Praying became different then. I wasn’t so much talking to myself, telling myself how I’m supposed to live. I started talking to God, or the universe, or whoever or whatever is out there.

I stuck with the gratitude where I could find it. But I also started asking for help.

I asked for healing. I asked for compassion, for mercy, for help in fighting my battles. I was pleading, really, even though I don’t believe in a God who answers prayers in the way we usually think of.

And this shift in how I prayed was part of my healing. Not because a supernatural being heard me and responded, but because I was acknowledging my weakness. My vulnerability. My desperation. My need for help.

It took a long time, but eventually my brain and body responded to this shift in my outlook. And it transferred to — or reflected — other parts of my life, where I began acknowledging my vulnerability to actual human beings. And asking for help. And saying no to requests and invitations and my own list of things I should be doing. Even though saying no went against my interpretation of the instruction manual for how to live my life.

I couldn’t follow the program the way I used to. I needed a new program.

Yached l’vaveinu b’ahava u’l’yira et shemecha.

That’s a line from the morning liturgy. In English, it reads, Unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name. It’s a prayer that ahava, love, and yira, fear or awe, come together in our hearts, working toward a unified purpose. (In prayerbook Hebrew, God’s “name” connotes divine essence and power.)

In this one line, I see my two different approaches to prayer.

In the old days, I followed the yira, a combination of awe and fear. Reminding myself how to live, I did not realize how terrified I was of falling short. I set impossible ideals and then, naturally, couldn’t live up to them. But I kept trying. My fear was not of God’s punishment but of failure — or, you could say, fear of being human.

I was missing the ahava, the love.

In my darkest days, I turned to ahava. I could no longer act upon the motivation that fear produced. I simply needed love, compassion, mercy. I needed to let myself feel the unconditional love of my friends and family, to realize their love did not depend on what I could accomplish. I needed to love myself.

The line I’m quoting, Yached l’vaveinu, comes from a prayer called Ahava Rabba, or “abundant love.” It begins: Ahava rabba ahavtanu: “You love us with abundant love.” The prayer also ends with ahava. In between, the word repeats three more times.

In addition to love, Ahava Rabba stresses God’s compassion and grace toward human beings. It asks for discernment and understanding. And it predicts (or demands) that, through God’s deliverance, we will rejoice and be happy.

Yira, the word for fear and awe, appears only once. That’s in the line quoted above, where it is paired with — and, crucially, follows — ahava.

So this is a prayer about love — love abundantly bestowed, not love that has to be earned. The prayer asks that in our hearts, in our intentions, we bring together the love and the fear. But love comes first, last, and in between.

In recent years, as my physical and emotional healing progress, my prayer practice has shifted again.

As in the old days, I’m using the prayers to remind myself of what I need to remember. But now, instead of directing my actions, it’s more about directing my thoughts and feelings — directing my heart.

Yoga teachers say the rest period at the end of each class is a time to “integrate” everything the body, mind, and spirit have done during the poses and meditations. The hypnotherapist I work with says the same thing about the last part of each session.

In a way, that’s another form of yached l’vaveinu — unifying our hearts, integrating, allowing everything to come together.

My prayer practice these days is much less consistent than it used to be. That’s to my detriment. I know the daily morning practice is good for me, especially when I’m able to unify my heart with love and with awe.

But as so often happens, what’s good for me becomes a should: a source of pressure, a poke in the gut to get with the program. And too often, when I’m not with the program, a source of shame.

The very next line after yached l’vaveinu is: V’lo nevosh l’olam va-ed: “And then we will not feel shame, eternally, forever.”

Amen.

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:

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Hineini: here I am

Decades ago, I belonged to a therapy group that drew on both talk and movement. One week we did an exercise in which group members took turns leading the others in improvised movement: dancing, swooping, jumping, anything they felt like doing. When a leader had enough, they would pass the role on to someone else.

Afterward, as we sat in a circle, people said that I seemed half-hearted when it was my turn to lead. I confessed that they were right: I was tired, my back hurt, and I didn’t feel like moving at all. I felt like lying down on my back and resting.img_20200428_170718701_hdr-1

Well then, they asked: why didn’t you do that?

My response: I didn’t think I was supposed to. I thought we were supposed to move, and so I moved, even though I wanted to lie still.

In a way, that’s the story of my life: trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, or what I think they expect, even when I need something different. (Well, that’s part of the story of my life. Another part is where I disregard what other people think and feel, because I’m so sure I know better. Fortunately, I think that part is mostly behind me.)

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‘Meanwhile the world goes on’

Commenting on a previous post, a friend remarked that I am using Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” as a “field guide.”

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Facebook photo

I love how that image captures the uncharted nature of this psychological and spiritual journey that I call the Mary Oliver Challenge. Although the opening and closing lines of “Wild Geese” point to where I want to go, the poem is not exactly a map. It’s a field guide, an aid in identifying features of the terrain through which I’m traveling.

This post — and Mary Oliver’s recent passing — bring me to a pivotal line, a sudden shift in the terrain, from inner to outer:

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 your 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.

When I first read the poem, that line bristled with cold indifference, even reproach: You think your despair is the center of the universe, but the universe couldn’t care less.

With time and rereading, my view changed. There is indifference, for sure. But it’s not cold or warm, hostile or embracing. Continue reading

In the land of the living

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The Jewish calendar packs what seems like a year’s worth of holidays into less than a month. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and ending with a celebration of the Torah — the five biblical books that we read from start to finish every year — it’s the completion of a cycle. The birth of a new one. The season of t’shuva, of return, again and again.

And then comes Heshvan, a month without holidays. The rabbis of tradition named it “Mar Heshvan,” bitter Heshvan: a barren time to be endured until Hanukkah, the next celebration.

That has never completely rung true for me. After the hectic fall holiday season, Heshvan comes as something of a relief — a return to normalcy.

But this year is different. My feeling this Heshvan is not of moving away from the holidays, but of moving toward, moving into.

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The light in the middle of the tunnel

B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
—Psalm 36

I love it when a blog post starts writing itself in my head. I’ll interrupt what I’m doing—sometimes even my morning prayers—to scribble some notes. Once I dictated most of a draft on my phone while walking in the park.

But sometimes I have only a phrase or an image, with no clear notion of what I want to say and, crucially, no idea how to start the post. Having a good opening (the “lede,” as we call it in journalism) is like kicking off from the swimming pool wall: it feels smooth and powerful, and the momentum can carry me a long way.

House in Fog
“House in Fog,” Francisca Verdoner Kan, 2007

This post started without a lede. The phrase above from Psalm 36—B’orcha yireh or: by your light, we will see light—struck me months ago during my morning prayers. What does it mean? It seems redundant, circular, absorbing the light of inquiry rather than revealing itself.

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Though my father and mother forsake me

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.

Rear Window 1958
My parents, Rita and Ray Smith, in 1958. May their memories be for a blessing.

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.

That time came this summer.

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Season of return

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.

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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.

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A time to sit

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.

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From my narrow place

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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.”

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