It was hard to find a good place to write onboard this Alaskan cruise ship. I finally found a spot to sit; it had been empty every time I passed earlier; too dark, too cold, and on the leeward side away from the sunset. Then, boom, thronging guests in formal-night dress converged: the moon has appeared, spectacular, over the glaciated mountain ridge in the view windows. Not just any moon; a full Alaskan moon, disk round as any voluptuous indigenous piece found in the many galleries on shore side.
Photos are snapped through the window; people mill all around in full dress, and I am here typing with my gingerale. Where are you right now?
It is Elul, and I am reading Alan Lew’s book, "This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared". Those of us reading this book are on the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, the historical Jewish communal passage from destruction to reflection and return. We are taking the personal passage of finding how to let go of what has taken us away from where we want to be, and finding our way to return.
I am returning to Vancouver after a remarkable year of learning and growing in the challenging people cauldron of New York. There, I saw face to face my core and values and realized it was time to return home, both internally and externally. This has been my time of teshuvah, of letting things go, get messy if need be, and stand again in the source that nourishes me.
As a Jewish woman, to confess, I have had trouble with this idea of ‘teshuvah’ and ‘return’ at the High Holydays my whole life. “What did I do wrong?” I would ask myself every year. And I easily found so many misdemeanors: I did not exercise as much as I wished to, said something I shouldn’t have, passed up opportunities to relax, was too serious, or did not follow up on potential relationships. The daily grind of remorse only seemed to make me more alienated and disconnected from myself.
One year, a dear Rabbi friend counseled me that I am one of the people who reflect enough, implying ‘too much’, year round, and not to turn myself inside out during the Yamim Noraim. I gave myself a break, he was right, I did look inwardly too much. This year, though, has been different: I left my familiar places and people, and went off on my own, intentionally so.
I have learned the power of having every decision I make as my responsibility: I make them with a lot of self care these days. When I miss the mark, I own it, and this for me, has been the opening for trust in the process of teshuvah.
What is my take on this annual process that we Jews engage in, more or less? I say ‘more or less’, because there are two kinds of folks: those, like myself, who feel the gravitational pull of introspection over the High Holidays: and then those who at the other extreme who feel this as an annual time of obligation, guilt, or humor (think of the episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, where the characters decide to save money by buying scalped High Holiday tickets).
Here is my take, this year:
We have in ourselves what we deeply dream of doing and being, we all have that. Can you remember what yours is? Really, remember now. Okay; and where are you now? Are you there close to that dream in your life? Yes? No? Are you sure this is your dream? Why not. That is what teshuvah is about: Why not.
What caused you to stray from yourself? A better paying career, self doubt? I say this because who else will convince you that you can’t do what you want. It’s not the outer voices of others; you can pass those up. It’s your own voice: yes, that one inside you. This is hard to consider, but please do for a moment. What if you spent this month with, as the Mateh Moshe proposed, an hour each day set aside to look inward?
Okay, that was a large idea. Do not attempt this without some guidance from a meditation teacher, or in community prayer! What may come your way is a landslide of feelings, and what you will need is a method for living with them, in peace. Meditation and prayer teach you to notice things as they arise and let them go their way, much like being afloat and observing objects drift by without grabbing on to them, staying afloat just as you are.
This is a good month to adopt a contemplative practice, and I say practice, because as you find your preferred place and time to meet with yourself and Gd, you will be teaching your body as well as your soul to look forward to this special time. Neuroscience is full of studies that show how adaptable our plastic brains are, and that they change as we change our habits. As we all know now, well-used neural pathways become the most natural ones for us. Elul is our annual invitation to begin the process of internal change.
During the year, when I sit as a Chaplain with patients who are suffering from spiritual distress, from a sense of loss of connection to themselves or others, or Gd, I ask them a simple question: can you recall a time when you did feel connected? Invariably, everyone can. This is the Gd moment. It is the moment when you know again who you are, in a way that is so natural you are not even thinking about who you are, you just ‘are’. A sense of peace and gratitude replaces the loss and disconnect at this memory. This is what we can hope to recreate intentionally every day, to reinforce our path to returning there, to our Gd place. This is a contemplative practice.
Another way I do this, is by playing my oboe everyday. Something happens when I play that instrument, so that no matter how fractured I feel, how much I am, as the Torah says, of ‘trafe da’at’, a torn mind, I become whole again.
I experienced the intensity of how this works for me the other week, a time of my toughest inner wrestling in my decision to return home to study. I went to my last oboe lesson, my mind gone in ‘trafe da’at’ and barely able to focus on how to get to the studio, but I did indeed arrive. My teacher finished blessing me with her wishes for my success in my decisions. Then we played an intense round of warm ups in unison, and by the end of a grueling ‘arpeggio boot camp’ drill, I was whole again. I had little time to reflect on what had just shifted inside as we moved into playing Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’ together in duet. All I knew was that once again, oboe playing was repairing the tears.
What had happened was that my intense drive and love of playing the instrument overrode every intrusive thought and memory that tried to trip me up. I let nothing interfere with my intentions to play, and ditched any upwelling distractions, like others telling me what a folly it is to play such a devilish instrument. This is the ultimate meditative coming-home focus for me. The wholeness and love I felt after this lesson sealed the deal. I had returned to that place where I felt connected, just as I had counseled others to do, and decided I was going home. Gd was calling me by way of arpeggio boot camp.
I am now afloat, literally, on a cruise ship headed down Alaska’s Inside Passage toward Vancouver. It is close to bliss for me: the Alaskan landscape slides by under that full disk moon, a live jazz ensemble opens another set, passengers stroll about in their dinner formal wear and cheery talk. I enjoy their ambiance, and keep typing as they float by. I am heading home. Return to what you love. You can return home, too.