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Tag: forgiveness

season of turning

my friend: red-breasted nuthatch.

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.

Mishkan Halev: prayers for Elul

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.

the saddest apology. though never too late….

teddy home umbrella

I still remember the phone call. I had a brand new baby, a baby whose birth had not been without one of those moments where the doctor calls you by first name, slaps you to attention, and with eyes darting between your unblinking gaze and the monitor measuring the baby’s dropping-down heart beat, she tells you this is what you’re going to do: You’re going to get that baby out in the very next push.

And you, knowing the vast canyon of cold chiseled truth nestled into that statement, knowing that she’s telling you you have a few breaths and one push to get this baby out whole and without harm, without your life’s dream whirling into the darkest abyss, you call on all the angels and saints and powers within and without, and you do just what she told you: You birth that baby in one triumphant, I’m-not-losing-him-now force beyond nature.

And then you wait. Wait through unbroken silence, seconds that feel like an hour, the quicksand of time. And then, from the shaft of light slicing through the darkness, his lungs fill with air and you hear him wheeze out a cry. A cry that deepens. A cry that says, without waver, “I am here.”

And from that blessed second on, you cradle that baby like nobody’s business. Not one ounce of his being here was ever expected, he is wholly a miracle.

But the voice on the phone that day, not long after you’d tumbled home from the hospital, she was shattered by your dream come true.

She, too, had wanted a baby. Wanted a baby more than anything. Had undergone more medical twists and turns than you ever thought a doctor would allow. She’d been poked and prodded and shot through with stimulators and repressors and countless variations thereof, all in the hopes of that one impossible moment where egg meets sperm and the dividing begins.

It hadn’t worked, not for her and not for her dream. Not in any of the last many, many, many rounds (I won’t say how many). She, like I, had one baby already. He was in second grade, as was my firstborn at the time and that’s how we met. It was the second baby she wanted. It was the second baby, with no medical wizardry, that I got. And not for one instant did that not feel anointed, feel blessed, feel beyond my grasp.

From the moment I realized there was a heartbeat pumping within, I was washed through with hushed holding my breath. The minute I called my doctor (at home on a Saturday afternoon) to tell her what the little pink stick from the home pregnancy test was telling me, she laid out the cold hard statistics for the “advanced maternal age” of 44 and counting: Odds of Down Syndrome, odds of miscarriage before the first trimester ended. Odds, odds, odds.

Not for a day, not for an hour, on the long road to delivery, did I forget those odds. Nor did I take one moment of any of it as a given.

But the voice on the other end of the phone could only see it through the pain of her bottomless wanting what I’d somehow gotten. And so, she told me, in bitterest words that she could never talk to me again. Never wanted to hear from me again.

I remember cradling the phone, feeling my knees about to give out. We’d not known each other for years and years, but she was big-hearted, huge-hearted, my friend. And we had found some solace in our shared hoping for one more round of mothering a baby. And, besides, she’d smothered my firstborn with her dollops and dollops of tender attentions — not to mention, killer matzah ball soup.

But the road forked — heartbreakingly so — when I found myself with child. I’d tried, oh I tried, to shield her from the pain that I knew would slice through her, in the quarter hour when I pulled her aside, held her hands tightly, and told her I could hardly believe it myself, didn’t know how long — or if — it would last, but my prayers seemed to have been answered.

In using those words, she would tell me in the bitterest phone call, I’d all but told her, she thought, that my prayers were heard, and hers were not, hers were not worthy, she construed it to mean.

From my end of the phone call, I said over and over how sorry I was. How I would give anything for her to have the baby she so deeply, desperately wanted. And I was so sorry the words I had carefully chosen had only made it more awful. She repeated, emphatically, that this would be our last conversation, that she never wanted to speak to me again.

Months earlier, when an adoption agency had called to ask for references, I told the questioner, with all my heart, that I knew my friend would be a magnificent mother, would wrap her very huge heart around anyone blessed to be slipped into her arms.

And once, years later, I wrote her a letter. Told her how many nights I lay there thinking of her, whispering prayers to stitch back together her shattered heart. Asked about her baby girl, the one who’d come — yes — from far, far away.

I never heard back. Never once heard her voice after the terrible, awful heartbreaking phone call.

A few months ago, as would occasionally happen, I started to think of her. Wondered how she was faring, she and her two boys (husband and son), and her beautiful girl, now 12 or 13.

I googled her. I found one of those pages for someone who’s sick, very sick, and is seeking donations. I gasped for breath and clicked “Donate.” Didn’t know if she’d return the donation. Didn’t know. Couldn’t believe.

She was too sick to write but her husband, the gentlest man, wrote a very sweet note. He said thank you.

I knew from one more blast email he’d sent that, by the end of June, she was back in the hospital, back in therapy to try to relieve the slicing-through pain that comes with late-stage cancer. They were hoping, he wrote, that once the pain subsided, once “the numbers” improved, she would begin a science-bending assault on the cancer.

And then I heard nothing. Not till yesterday afternoon, when I clicked on my email, and there was her name, first and last. I opened the email, and I started to read, the words tumbling one on top of the other, not making clear sense.

Here’s what I read:

“I know it has been a very long time and many years needlessly gone by.  I am reaching out to you…I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to contact you at this late date, but I have spent a good part of the last three months reaching out…Trying to mend fences where possible, with the hope of finding some type of closure for everyone involved.  I don’t have any answers as to what happened, nor any great insight. I do know that what transpired was wrong, you were wronged and that I was unable to effect the out come.”

I wrote back:

“i am breathless. i always loved [her]. she was so hurt by the way i told her i was pregnant with T. i only MEANT to shield her from the pain i feared the news would bring. and clearly i bungled it horribly…….and i have been so sorry for so many years. for years i would lay awake at night wondering if i could yet write to her…..”

And then I googled her once again. Up popped her name, first and last, with the final addendum: “obituary.” She had died, back in the summer. I don’t know the date, don’t know the details.

All I know is what came in the last email from her gentle-hearted husband:

“She passed away peacefully in my arms after staring down cancer for seven and a half years. She had been through a heavy ordeal, seven chemo therapies, three major surgeries and two clinical trials.…We were waiting to start [a newfangled] vaccine when she passed unexpectedly, we both thought she had another year or two. We were a couple at the end, I made sure she was not in any pain. She asked me before she passed, what happens now? what happens next? I told her, I don’t know baby, but what ever it is we are going to face it together and then she smiled and closed her eyes. She was not afraid at the end and neither was I as we were together. I have to stop writing now as i cant see through the tears.”

And I sat there, staring and shaking, shaking and staring. All I could think was that it was the saddest apology I’d ever read, the one that wasn’t too late, not at all. Not one minute too late.

I wrote back: “[she] was pure love. she died with me loving her. and i will pray that she knew that…..”

And I will pray. And I do believe that she knew that. And that she knew that I knew she was sorry. And I was, too. I was, I am, so sorry.

For those friendships that shatter. For words never spoken again. For years lived with distance, with silence. For sparks that don’t get to fly between eyes, between hearts.

For all of it, for my dear blessed friend who never met my miracle boy, nor I her miracle girl.

It is the sorriest saddest apology. And it might have come late, but I am so deeply grateful it came.

Rest gently, dear friend. All is at peace where our hearts beat as one.

because this one made me nervous, because i wasn’t quite sure how i could say it and protect my friend, i typed it first in draft form. thus, today’s rare capital letters throughout. it still scares me a bit to write this. but the point is it’s a meditation on forgiveness, on friendship, on heartbreak and stitching those hearts together again. it breaks my heart that as i type this my friend isn’t here to read it, to see it, to know that the love never died. it breaks my heart that all those years, i never heard her voice again. i think i called once and left a message, so she heard mine. the aching all those years. the bittersweet whole truth of life: in my arms, i cradled pure joy. yet it cost me a friend. that’s a steep price. an equation i’d not weigh in a balance. instead, i am offering up all my sadness, my heart, to the friend whom i pray has found, at long last, the peace she so deeply deserves. 

are there apologies in your life that you would wish would be spoken while there is time to stitch together the brokenness?