Summer’s over, well almost. Here on Commercial Drive where I live, it’s still okay to sit at an open-air patio and tuck into a plate of jerk chicken, or sample a selection of Belgian beers with a cone of pomme frites, or sip an espresso and argue in your home tongue about soccer stats
Last evening I indulged with half-liter of Zinfandel and baked brie with a friend; my only concession to the season was worrying about whether it would be gauche to wear a straw fedora after Labor Day, or go with my black pin-stripe topper instead. I went with the straw. Afterward, although easily my bedtime, I wandered up The Drive to do some errands at the 24hr pharmacy and took in the last touches of summer evening blues notes and sidewalk dramas before cooler weather sets in.
What did I learn this summer? There’s always a story to share:
The first thing: what a J at the end of a sentence meansJ. I started getting emails and texts with these errant J’s and assumed that spell checkers everywhere were having a strange J-worm working through them. Then I decided with humility to ask someone: did she know she’d sent me a text with a J at the end of the sentence, and what it might mean? Google answered that one; a glitch that turns email smiley faces into J's. Okay, now we get to see an onslaught of J’s until we all move on to using our words once again to say what we meanJ.
As usual, I did learn some Big Things. I would say that for me, the image I carried this past series of weeks between being a CPE summer Chaplain Intern and my upcoming year of CPE Residency, would be that of myself at the rim of a precipice. I reckon I’ve been at that precipice my whole life, and thought myself pretty enlightened that I could look down into the chasm and be alternately amused and terrified, but remain there on that edgy place and keep fresh.
In a way, that has been a good strategy for navigating life’s unpredictability, staying in a place of panoramas and choices of views and vistas. Creating music and words, learning, settling into patterns that are familiar, going to school, studying, housekeeping, and volunteering in the community.
What I didn’t see coming was that this seeming freedom and freshness was not providing me with comfort or answers to the reality of beginning a full time practice of presence for others after a 30-year hiatus from full time work. Merely standing at my familiar edge was not taking me where I needed to go any longer.
I needed to turn around, and here I found my place of falling: in teshuvah. Tonight the Jewish New Year starts, with its call to self-reflection and return to the land of one’s soul. In gratitude, I began to shift from the summery delights of The Drive, and tuck into this work of return.
I’ve found myself in the image of Jonah, whose story is the focus of Yom Kippur, struggling to deliver the message of imminent doom to my free flowing lifestyle. Everything was about to radically shift and I was not ready.
So I ran away from the cliff edge and hid. Clearly, I was hiding in the belly of a great fish, because eventually, sensing that I was staying immobile in its great tummy and not moving along, I was belched out. That may have felt good to the fish, but now I was back at that edge and looking at the great chasm again. I realized that hiding was not a long-term solution, and it was no longer possible to merely stand on the edge and take in the view. My life was in motion and I needed to keep moving.
So, when I found myself belched up back on the ledge, I leapt in. Dop, right into the chasm. Free fall.
I don’t recall any story in Jewish text about a free fall like this. I do know about faith and the metaphor of leap of faith. As I fell, I had to let go of all of it, every intangible commodity that I had built up over the years, all my currency of choices and freedoms.
At various moments, I released some of the baggage that had kept me on the edge; it was now dragging on me as I fell. One piece was keeping my old computer. I could have done this years ago, but the safety of hanging on, not knowing what the future might look like, kept me from making such an obvious purchase for a writer and composer. There are no guarantees of success that come with the computer, so I let the free fall continue, recognizing that not having faith in what calls me forward, is a recipe for failure.
I kept falling. Next, transit. I loved being carless in New York. My love affair with transit bubble soon burst after returning to Vancouver: it’s wet here! and we don’t have subways all over the city, we have slow as molasses buses and toy Skytrains. It’s been a miserably wet and slow year on transit and slogging in the rain to get to a co-op car. All of the places I needed and wanted to go, and people to see, were waiting, and the romance of being car-less was gone. I accepted the very real limitations of the car-less life and decided to buy a car.
You might be thinking this is actually an indulgent way to start the New Year. In fact, that crossed my mind--Oy, more baggage to lose.
Here is a teaching that reassured me.
At the New Year, in our liturgy we ask over and over again from God for things; good health, food to eat, healing, success in our endeavours, long life, happiness, children: are we being selfish and indulgent? Is God bored with all these requests? Here’s what I learned from studies in chassidus:
We humans need stuff, like food and drink, marriage, commerce. We are earthly beings. Engaging in practices to become pure spirit or to dwell in un-embodied enlightenment isn’t what God has in mind for us, and I say this because God already has beings like that: God has the angels and heavenly beings.
Rosh HaShanah is on the 6th day of creation, not the 1st day. Why? the final phase of creation, humans, can remember God and God’s supremacy or kingship. And humans need all the things that were created on the first five days. So those things, whatever they are, sunlight, fish or vegetables to eat, water to drink, the stuff that we make cars and computers from, are necessary for elevating ourselves, to enable us in our humanness to help others in need, and to remember and celebrate God, the Source of all things.
It’s said in Psalm 107:5 ‘Hungry and thirsty their soul languished within them’. Standing on the edge as the perpetual observer and not eating or drinking prevents us from nourishing the soul, serving oneself and others, and elevating the everyday towards God. About 30 years ago, a psychic came up to me at a meeting and told me I am sitting on a fence and when will I get off and start helping others?
Accepting what is not going to change, I am finally taking that leap off the fence, taking the plunge that calls me to accept what gifts I have with gratitude, and move forward to learn to serve in a helping profession,
‘Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated: you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps’ (David Lloyd George).
I thought this would be a summer of beach time or a holiday away; instead, it has been a free fall. Every time I get that stuck feeling, I remind myself of the free fall back in the chasm, it’s been the safest place yet, and I’m learning to fly.
May your year be filled with good things, health, music, wisdom, joy and healthy steps.