all around, i see daubs of russet and pumpkin. at the tips of the branches. on the leaves of the vine. even on the chest of my nuthatch, the one that followed me around the garden the other day as if he wanted to plop on my shoulder and whisper a secret. (in the case of the nuthatch, though, a red-breasted nuthatch, he wears russet all year round; he’s not sporting ephemeral seasonal garb). for the leaves, the russet and pumpkin, soon to be crimson and gold as the deepening deepens, as the chlorophyll scrapes the paint-barrel bottom, the brushstrokes of autumn are signs that we’ve entered the season of turning.
the jews, a people from whom i have gleaned volumes of sacred attentiveness, seize every turning of this holy earth, and this season of turning is its own holy time: Elul, the month that opens the gates to the holiest of holy days, the Days of Awe, the new year and the day of atonement, coming at the next new moon.
this is the month, these amber-drenched days and moonbeam-bathed nights, when our one anointed task is to attend to the work of cleansing our souls. jews take repentance seriously. no whispered, hurried, sloughed off “so sorry.” to truly repent is to a.) look deep inside; b.) shake off the shame, the excuse, or whatever it is that keeps you from telling your truth; and then, c.) the hard part: stepping up to the plate, looking the ones you’ve hurt or cut short, the ones for whom you’ve been too often distracted, looking them straight in the eye and saying here’s what i did, and i am so sorry. and i will change my ways. or try to anyway.
and here’s a wondrous thing, a something that makes it just a wee bit more promising to take on the hard work of repenting; wise words spoken by one of our rabbis just the other Shabbat. she was preaching about the season of turning, and she made the point that God — the God in whom i believe, a God of compassion, a God who reaches deep down into the parts of me that hurt the most, into the parts of me that get tangled, tripped up, and sometimes make a big mess of what needn’t be messy — that holy God is primed and ready to meet us way more than halfway in the repenting department.
the sages of the Talmud gave us this marvelous teaching about repentance:
“God says if we open a door as tiny as the eye of a needle, God will widen it and make it large enough to let carts and horse-drawn carriages drive through.”
in other words, God’s got skin in this game. God doesn’t expect overnight miracles. we aren’t meant to turn into superheroes of saintly proportion. we’re plain old bumble-brain humans, after all. and the talmudic teaching is, in my mind, as if God sat us down, knee-to-knee on a park bench, perhaps, and said, look, here’s the deal, just give me the faintest slightest attempt at saying you’re sorry. just one tiny opening, that’s all i ask. the beginning of something that looks or smells or sounds like contrition. an honest-to-goodness “i screwed up.” you give me that, and i’ll take it from there. i’ll swipe open your heart, let the sweet stuff roar in. give you a sense of just what it feels like to let loving abide.
maybe just maybe, the teaching is saying, we can discover the weightlessness that comes when the guilt washes away, and with it its ugly cousins: worry, or shame, or that godawful sense that we’ve hurt someone or something when we hadn’t intended to do any such thing.
one of the things i love about jewish teachings is that there’s an almost breathtaking knowing of the complexities of the human soul and psyche. there’s no simplistic aphoristic glossing over of whatever it is that makes us tick. it’s not a magic-wand religion, not inclined toward three E-Z steps to HappilyEverAfterLand.
it doesn’t avert its gaze. doesn’t whitewash the ask. names the hard parts. and somehow believes we’re up to the task, every last wobbly one of us.
take this teaching on the demands of the season of turning, a teaching i found in the prayer book for this month of Elul:
Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful. It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways. God, help us to turn––from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around and bring us back toward You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other––for in isolation there is no life.Rabbi Jack Riemer (emphasis added)
the jewish understand of the soul is nuanced, its prayers often stop me in my tracks. utterly breathtakingly beautiful. and blessed.
no matter how or what you believe (or even if you don’t), it seems there is something in this turning season that calls us into a deeper and quieter contemplation, an inkling that we are all wrapped in a golden-threaded prayer shawl of awe.
to the author of this prayer (again, a prayer i found in the Mishkan Halev, or prayer book for Elul), the days and weeks in which we now find ourselves are something of a holy island in the year. may you find its shore, and be harbored in its holiest coves.
An Island in the Year
Before we slip too quickly into the Season of the Soul––
let there be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the heart.
Before the music of Creation’s majesty––
let there be a silent praise of existence.
Before the feast of sanctified words––
let there be a poetry of solitude.
Before we enter the palaces of prayer––
let us find within ourselves a place of calm.
Before we revel on the wondrous and sublime––
let there be an honest, inward gaze.
Before the rites and ceremonies of Awe––
let there be quieter days,
an island of attentiveness.
what are the ways you find yourself turning in this holy season?
beautiful people, i never really write chairs a day ahead, but for some reason i did yesterday, and today it turns out i am flying to new york city on the next flight. my beautiful boy was admitted to the hospital last night, and i am going to be there. no idea for how long. but this is where mamas belong. say a prayer for my Will.