Yesterday was the first day of the Jewish new year. I like that it is a seasonal occurrence – coming with the ripening of the fall fruits, the cooling of the air. The red of the pomegranate, which symbolizes renewal, birth, and fertility, and its seeds supposedly numbering 613, the same number of mitzvot, or good deeds, to which a pious Jew is supposed to adhere in order to live a good life. I like numbers and symbolism and the quiet night sky when a new moon moves us to a new season.
I certainly have been looking to turn a page. The summer was my outburst, freeing myself from the shackles of a year of arduous caregiving to my terminally ill husband. I traveled, I ate, I drank, I called old friends, I made new friends. I flirted, I stayed up late, I had a crush. I pounded paths I hadn’t seen in a long time.
Then I returned to work, and life took on a different rhythm. While I didn’t feel the expectation that some grievers feel from those around them, a silent wagging finger insisting that they shape and re-enter the normal world, I still felt off kilter. Unfocused. The scrim of grief, which had eluded me over the summer, fell hard and has encircled the stage of my life. Our 25th anniversary flattened me, unexpectedly, as I had thought I was cleverly outsmarting its pain by taking myself on a trip home, to see the oldest and dearest friends and enjoy the bustle of my home city. Instead, the day of the anniversary found me on a couch, remote in hand, chocolates at the ready, not moving for hours. I suppose now, looking back, it was inevitable, and cathartic. But I felt like a failure. I learned can’t elude the grief I thought I had already processed during the year. That was only anticipatory grief. This is the real deal.
I approached the High Holidays on the Jewish calendar with a bit more caution. They are what brought my husband and me together from the start – my desire to belong. Belong to a community, to a religious identity, to a tribe. I had a visceral need to be a part of something, anything, having grown up cleaved both by my parents’ interfaith/non-faith marriage and my childhood spent in a neighborhood where my skin color was the minority. And my husband, deeply rooted in his faith and his legacy, was my catalyst. He took his job seriously, and together we both found a spiritual home and made our own home spiritual.
So yesterday, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, was a day in which I wanted to lay claim to the earth, and to my life. Instead of sitting in a high school auditorium, not praying, I took a long hike with my daughter, whose smile is like a bright moonbeam and whose disposition is almost always sunny. I knew she’d be good company. We explored a nearby nature preserve, walking along its reedy paths, spying on frogs and birds and whisking away cat o’nine tails as we traversed the low slung bridges across the marsh. There were a few flowers left blooming on the lily pads, summer not quite ready to give up her fight, and as we walked we laughed about her brothers, discussed her college applications and remembered her dad. It was a good morning.
Brunch was spent with dear friends, and afterwards, feeling full and loved and sated, I tore off the heel of the last loaf of bread in the house and went to my favorite stream in my favorite park. Standing on the small trestle bridge, leaning over into the rapidly moving water, I conducted my own private tashlich ceremony, where Jews are required to empty their pockets into running water to rid themselves of their sins. I tore off the bread, piece by piece, tossing off my sins of the past year. Impatience. Parsimoniousness. Procrastination. Anger at those who had no recourse. Lack of strength to carry on. Laziness. Selfishness. Thoughts too terrible to say out loud. There is no prayer to accompany tashlich. You are alone with yourself and your sins. It’s a powerful moment, leaving you to accept that the sins lived there, in your pockets, and recognizing it is up to you to forge your way into living a better life in the year to come.
And then I went home. I felt … different. Cleansed. Alive.
I have a need to connect to people, deeply and with great intent. One of the hardest things for me over the past year was to respect my husband’s need for quiet, and calm, and the company only of his closest friends. I was his gatekeeper, and he trusted me to ensure that he was surrounded only by those he wanted and needed around him.
But his needs deprived me of my most primal self – the self that needs to be with not only my closest and most beloved, but others in the rippling outer rings from whom I also draw strength and energy and love. Between my life partner being so inwardly focused and my natural tendency to reach out essentially squelched, I was very, very lonely.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to address this need for deeper connection, now that I live in a house that is devoid of my favorite converser/debriefer/political prognosticator/introvert/wry humorist. Just a recent crazy two-day dip into the world of online dating has made me recoil – it feels tawdry, with all those eyes upon you. Hundreds of “likes” later, I’ve already closed down that shop. More of an experiment anyway; as a friend who knows about these exploits has noted, I’m way too intense a project for anyone right now. Perhaps forever.
But I like my intensity, and plan to keep it. It makes me feel strong.
So I’m making loads of breakfast, lunch and coffee dates with friends and acquaintances. In some ways, it’s my way of saying thank you to those who reached out this past year with love and support in so many different ways. The idea of writing the hundreds of thank you notes that, under any other circumstance would be de rigueur, continues to overwhelm me. The least I can do is buy everyone a cup of coffee. It also keeps me occupied and a little less lonely. I guess now’s not the time to scale back on my happy pills, which I thought I’d do as soon as the summer was over. I don’t like being reliant on medication, but it seems that it continues to be a necessary component of maintaining my wholeness.
Yesterday, before our hike, I ran up to the food co-op for a couple of things. Peering down the bulk aisle, I spied an old colleague with whom I had worked many years ago. I called her name, and we hugged tightly. She doesn’t really exist even in the furthest outer rings of my life, and yet somehow she knew about my experience of this past year. Turns out she and her partner had just split up after 24 years, and she is looking to connect with old friends who have long disappeared. So am I, I practically shouted. It’s bashert, I added, invoking the Jewish concept of something that was meant to be, even though she grew up Mennonite. We hugged and exchanged texts and I know we’ll get together and reminisce about our work together, and the year she came to my seder and talked about how she missed her mother, and how we parted not on the best of terms. But now we’re both wandering, a little lost in the world, and can mend that trestle.
So I move on. These Days of Awe in which we now sit are a time for introspection and forgiveness. I want to forgive myself my transgressions as a caregiver, a wife, a parent, a friend. I want to embrace the world with newfound energy and vigor, allowing for the light to peer in through the cracks. And I want to live an expansive life in the year 5777, a year that honors the birth of the world, my husband’s memory, and my eager spirit.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” F. Scott Fitzgerald