So, yesterday was Shabbat. It was also January 21, 2017 and almost everyone I know and members of my family were at protest marches all over the country. Friends in France, England, Ireland and all over the world were protesting. I stayed home and put on my pink fuzzy pajamas (in solidarity with all the pink pussy hats) and said some prayers and studied Torah.
I watched the protests unfolding on my phone and on Facebook. I felt the energy and the hope and exuberance and the anger as well. I am in a counter-current to almost everyone I know. My internal river is moving very slowly in a circular mellow eddy, where I am gathering leaves, moss, rocks, and sticks. I’m crafting something entirely other and different from what has been. I’m not at all in the main stream right now. I’m in the inbetween, in limnal, milky and birthing something different waters.
When I started reading the Torah portion, I was not surprised to see that the story for this day of protest and this week of intense complexity was the story of a wicked ruler/Pharoah who ordered the killing of all Jewish boys upon birth. It’s the story of resistance, of Miriam (the Prophetess sister of Moses) and Yochaved (mother of Moses) and Zipporah (wife of Moses) and Batya (daughter of Pharoah) and Shifrah and Puah (midwives). All Biblically powerful women who did not follow orders, who resisted the violent, crazy powers. They did so with cunning, with solidarity, with creativity and with courage. I encourage you to read this piece of Torah, it’s pretty powerful stuff.
So, the story of today, for me feels like the story of thousands of years ago. And while there were signs saying “It’s not 2017 B.C.E” all over the protests going on. Part of me is thinking, yes, actually it is. We are still navigating very similar territory and history is cyclical, circular, complex and has an intensely long arc. I believe there has been and is movement towards goodness and caring and kindness that is huge, but I don’t think we are ever free from certain dynamics.
This is why the Torah is still as alive for me today as it was thousands of years ago for my ancestors. It’s still telling the story of how to navigate life and all the challenges we will certainly encounter while we spin on this planet. It’s still advocating resistance to injustice, solidarity with those who are innocent, vulnerable, different or endangered. It’s still asking us to lead with kindness and goodness and to believe in goodness not just in our minds but in our actions. This is a radical thing to do.
What does active goodness look like? It involves a deep engagement with hope, with trust, with caring, with service, with soup-making and helping others in whatever ways one can. It involves extending our circles of love beyond ourselves and holding the suffering of those near and far in our hearts. It’s not a mental activity, it’s a full-bodied, full hearted, whole self involvement.
I try not to watch the news or participate in the cycle of crazy information that will pull me out of this internal eddy I’m currently in. If you want to understand this practice and my reasons for this read: Open Hearted Elections..
There is something here in the non-news zone to explore that is not angry or fast or stimulating. It’s the slow steady turning of life and love and the knowledge in my bones that I am here to serve and that this is a life-journey, not a sometimes-when-I-feel-like-it-journey. My children are adults now, my youngest just turned 20 on January 20th. I’m shifting my current and looking for how to best honor the Holy One in the coming years. I’m exploring how to flow into my best aware service in consistently trying, even more complex, and intensely challenging times.
Climate change is real, anger, sexism, racism, bigotry of all kinds, belligerence and violence are real forces on this planet. They are not the only forces though. I cannot battle these forces, I have no battle energy currently moving through me. I have tenderness, I have vulnerability, I have clean the kitchen and make soup energy, I have love my friends and family and community energy. I have pray in pink fuzzy pajama and study energy. I have dreaming energy and hoping energy and writing energy.
I have a strong desire to listen to the elders of all wisdom traditions and try to do what is wise to do. I’m very grateful to cede the territory of battle, protest and shifting, on a larger scale, to those who are called to do that kind of work. I don’t think we all serve in the same ways and I don’t think we need to. I’ve been on the front lines and this is not my time for that. I also trust and have Bitahon (absolute trust) in the Holy One, whose plans are not knowable or known to me. This teaching below is an hour long, and crucial because it informs how I understand this period of time we are living in. My teacher, Reb Zalman, May his memory continue to be a blessing, talks about this time as being a time of Axial turning, not a paradigm or quick shifting. A turning towards goodness and change that is several hundred years long, not one or two generations. This resonates for me right now.
The closest I can come to understanding what is impossible to understand is to fall back on what I know is true. What is true for me is that I feel more bound to the effort, than the outcome and to the means and not the ends. So, I will continue to pray in pink, swirl slowly, make medicine, listen to folks in need, help when and where I can, honor the Sabbath, and send out messages when something surfaces that may be of value to others.
Under the covers, under the stars, under the radar, under, under, under, snowed completely under.
Lost in blankets, wholly surrounded. How the hell to emerge? I don’t seem to have an answer and have had to push myself physically and mentally to move outside of my bedroom. The death of a beloved community member and the grief around this also got me up and out to attend to the details that are mine, as Chair of the Hevra Kadisha, to do when someone dies. Being surrounded, in this process, by good people and community, sharing the tasks, holding each other in our pain and sorrow. This, then, becoming the new blanket I want to be folded into.
The blanket of community and shared carrying of the load. My friend, the grieving widow was expressing, on one of the nights of Shiv’ah, how special it was to have people in her home and how she was so terribly sad that it had to happen as a result of her husband’s death. She was expressing her anguish and loneliness and it was raw. We all know this, we don’t go visit folks or make the time, feel too overwhelmed or just have too much going on, we make excuses or just cannot get ourselves to the homes of others.
When there is a death, that drops away and we get there. This, by itself, is a correct and good thing. The stark contrast though between having your house full of folks for seven days after your husband dies and the fact that prior to that and after that your home will again be pretty empty, that is not a correct or a good thing. But it is the territory we are all in. We push ourselves when the need is great, the grief is current. We slide back into old patterns and ways of being as soon as we can.
There is no judgement here. It’s just something I’m living and experiencing and noticing. The cycle of connection and effort and how that unfolds in my community and life. I remember many years ago, when I was very sick and my husband was as well. We were very contagious with MRSA. We were hoping our young son wouldn’t get infected and he didn’t thanks to the help we got. There was a crew of folks coming to my home washing all the sheets every day, bleaching bathroom and kitchen counters, basically disinfecting my home daily. This enabled us to recover and allowed me to navigate my allergic reactions to various antibiotics. I only had to let folks in my community know I needed help and what I needed and BOOM it was there.
Now, I don’t ask for help that often. I’ve done it a few times in the over twenty years I’ve been a member of my congregation. This time, I’ve mentioned above, was one and more recently when my son got hit by a car, which crushed his right foot, last April. I had too much to navigate and needed meals delivered so I didn’t have to cook on top of everything else. My community was there for me, is there for me.
I attend to my community as I would to my family. I try to be there as much as I can and I also work with my boundaries and knowing that it’s a shared home. This works if everyone in the community is part of the work-force. Not everyone in our congregation or the world is functional or able though, so those folks who need constant help or more help than we can actually provide makes the work a little heavier and harder, because it’s just impossible to actually “fix-it.”
This is where it gets sticky and hard. The feeling of failing, of just not being able to fix or provide enough comfort or help for all the broken things in this world right now, the hopelessness of having someone I cannot bear to look at, or name, be elected President and all the problems I anticipate this will cause. I’ve been telling everyone I know, it’s not going to get easier folks. And, I’m tired, very, very tired of fighting all the battles and extending myself continuously, but the work is not done.
As our beloved prophet Leonard Cohen, may his memory continue to be a profound blessing, says on his last album: “You want it darker, we kill the flame…” It seems extremely dark to me right now, and this song has been a clarion call for me because in the middle of all the darkness there’s the line in this song when Leonard chants “Hineyni/Here I Am.” and then says “I’m ready my Lord.”
These are the words of Abraham and Issac and they are the words of those drawn to service, to the willing offering of everything, absolutely everything, in service to the work in service to the Holy One, even when the territory is full of fog. My hineyni has been whispered lately. It’s been really hard to actually stand up and be heard and loudly proclaim that I am ready to continue serving. I’ve just wanted to be under the covers.
Several things are helping me emerge:
knowing that my hiding will not make anything better
knowing that I am not alone in my feelings
knowing and working always to remember this teaching by Rabbi Tarfon:
a recent teaching shared with me by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone that has to do with us being the food for others and not knowing the end of our story, having to trust and serve without knowing outcomes.
This post by Rebelle Society about these times being dark Goddess Kali times
finding comfort in small-scale victories locally, globally or personally
the patience and kindness of my beloveds
I’m a very lucky and resourced person, in the privileged category. This doesn’t mean I don’t have troubles or concerns, but they are manageable. This is not the case for so many other folks. So, I venture out to be food and nourishment to offer these things as well as be these things for those near me. It’s all I can do. I’ve made a new vow to not get into my bed before 9pm at night. So, between 9 and 9, I’ll offer and navigate my world. On Shabbat and during the night, I’ll re-connect to the Divine and get the nourishment that will enable me to emerge.
My Mussar assignment this month has to do with creating a fence in front of one activity that takes me over a cliff I don’t want to go over. I identified that getting under the covers wasn’t where I wanted to be, it’s wasteful and not helping anyone as well as causing concern for my husband and friends. It was necessary for me to be in bed for the time I was.
I’m not sorry I’ve spent a large amount of time in bed trying to recover—RE-COVER— I just noticed that this word is extremely apt for where I’ve been, lost in bed recovering myself, like re-wombing myself going into a safe warm place to grow into the next phase.
I’m no newborn though, which is good. I’ve got the tools, the friends, the community, the time and the wherewithal to engage more fully, so it’s time to get out of bed!
“Whatever we are doing, however great or small the act, may we remember to take the wisdom of Joseph with us, and the shamanic medicine of the Baal Shem Tov to help us align ourselves to a Will greater than our own, to become michyah, life-giving food for the great unfolding.” —Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
There is no way to tell this story without lots of tears, mine, yours and the world’s. It’s an old story and one that repeats all the time and is going on now. It’s my story and it, unfortunately, may be yours as well. I begin to unfold it, here and now, breaking years of silence, on my part. I do this for my healing and hopefully for the healing of someone I love, in the spirit of Elul, and because it is time. There will be much more about this in the future….this is just a beginning.
I failed my prime directive as a mother. I did not keep my children safe from harm.
I was young, single, on welfare and living with charlatans, who I trusted. I cannot justify my failure and indeed it is against Jewish understanding to ask forgiveness or try to explain or justify a wrong action when asking for forgiveness. I’m not asking for forgiveness here. Forgiveness, if it is granted, is a private personal process between my children and myself.
Nevertheless, Here, I am/ Hi Ney Ni, turning in the harsh and cold wind of my pain and regret. One of my beloved sisters, by Love, Terret, recently gave me a piece that has helped me understand this territory more. She has been part of this particular story from its beginning, in terms of being present for my children, and being with me since we met when I was eighteen. I became pregnant with my first child when I was nineteen. Terret reminded me that I would willingly have cut off both my arms, if it had meant I could stop the suffering of my child. Cutting off my arms will not stop the suffering, nor will wishingI had been smarter, wiser, seen what was happening or prevented harm from happening.
If there was a sacrifice, of any kind, that I could make so that the pain in my child’s life would lessen, I would have made it a thousand times over. We cannot go back in time and erase what was done to us or those we love. Hindsight is always 20/20. I can and will continue to support healing and hope for there to be a Refuah Shelemah (Complete Healing of Body, Mind, Heart and Soul). I will do whatever I can to make amends, but I cannot change the past.
Just a few days ago, I met with my child’s therapist, with permission. My children are all adults now, but I am wanting to respect their privacy, so I’m not naming them. This man told me to “take heart.” He said that the fact that I was allowed to speak to him meant that there was an inclination, on the part of my child, for reconciliation.
Taking Heart, for anyone who knows me, seems like a no brainer. I’m all about that, I’m all over it, I’m a poster child for it. Nevertheless, it’s not something I have done or can easily do in this situation. So, it was nice to hear those words.
In two weeks I will stand before the Holy One, with my congregation, with my friends and with my teachers. I will hope for renewal and to be granted a new vessel to hold my soul in. I’m definitely due for some renewal!
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone of Boulder, Colorado, passed on this image in a teaching she gave. I don’t remember who gave it to her, but it’s an ancient idea about the vessel our souls inhabit. On Rosh Hashanah, the Holy One grants us a new vessel, clean and vibrant to hold our self in and to pour ourselves out of. If, we have worked on our stuff, looked at our faults and made an effort to turn back to who we truly are in our hearts than we will not only notice this new vessel, but be enlivened by it. Every mistake we make during the year creates a crack in this vessel, big errors, like hurting other people makes for big holes. This means that by the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, all that might be left of our vessels could be a shard or two; nothing that can hold water or light or love or laughter. In my tradition, if I do the work between myself and others, on Yom Kippur, the Holy One forgives me for the mistakes I’ve made between myself and myself, between myself and the Divine. Only those I wrong can forgive me for the wrongs I’ve done them.
Tikkun Olam/Mending the World, and Refuah/Healing are continual processes. Every year of my life, until I leave this world, I will have to look at myself, my mistakes, my leaks and holes. There is no free ride or free lunch when it comes to personal spiritual growth or practice. If you want to serve the Divine and to serve Goodness, you do not ever rest on your laurels. When all people on earth are fed, when all children are safe from harm, when all those whose lives have been broken by hurt are healed, when the planet is free from wanton and grievous pillaging and rape, when we honor and treasure each other in our differences of shape, size, religious inclination, age, gender identity, sexual preference, pigmentation of our skin, income bracket or whether we are human, animal, plant or river, THEN and ONLY THEN can we rest.
This doesn’t mean you can’t take a break. I take a break every Shabbat, and on every Holy Day. We have days for mourning and feeling all the hurt in my tradition. Those are important for me. Most of the time, I live in a state of constant gratitude to the Divine. I am lucky enough to be able to hear the song of the flowers and the planet. I have tremendous support from family and friends. I have a phenomenal husband who has my back in every way imaginable and who has been with me on this journey for a long time.
I will never regret having my children young and alone. This was how they came to me and I chose to keep them and have them, even without support. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. Their unique genetic blends, their deliciousness and magnificence is something I will forever delight in. Being their mother has been and is the greatest gift the Holy One has ever given me. And then, I was blessed, to have a third child, finally, with a man who loved me. A man who, not only has stayed the course through very difficult territory, but who has held, supported and nurtured all of us.
I am profoundly and painfully remorseful and sorry that I did not protect my children. I am working all the time to make amends for that harm. My husband was our rescuer, the person who brought us all into his heart and under the protecting shelter of his arms. He came into our lives when my children were three and one. Because of him, healing for all of us is possible.
Since starting this post, I’ve broken down and cried several times. This territory is so terribly hard and I feel such shame, pain and grief. I’m listening to Berel Alexander’s music right now, it’s helping me. He’s singing a gorgeous song called “Giving Thanks,” from his album Hooked, and because of him, his mother Rabbi Naomi Steinberg, my family, my friends, my community, my prayer practice, and my teachers, I am able to hold this much pain and grief. Because I am not alone, I can and will keep trying to make Tikkun in the world and in my family.
I cannot know if there will be a Refuah Shelemah in our lives, but I won’t stop working for it and praying for it. A wound cannot heal if it is kept in the dark and never tended to. Wounds need to be seen and to have the pus drained out. There is no way to do that without pain and without addressing the root causes of the wound.
The great South African Archbishop, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, gave us the Truth and Reconciliation process/model. With that in mind, I am hopeful. How can anyone think that it isn’t possible to “take heart,” when we have this amazing example of South Africa and their courageous efforts towards healing from the most heinous crimes?
So, I will Take Heart. I hope you will as well, and together, with our very broken hearts, we can come together, each of us, being honest, taking chances, crossing hard territory and trusting that the only way to be whole is if we all are holding hands and working hard to speak truth, being kind, endeavoring to forgive those who have hurt us (if they are genuine in their efforts towards reparations), and even if they aren’t. Forgiveness is healing for us as well as for those we forgive. We still and always must take responsibility for the wrongs we have done and hope and pray to be forgiven.
May you find yourself held and supported as you navigate your own hard territory. You are not Alone!
I do not have breast cancer. I did find a lump in my right breast about six weeks ago. This is the story of my adventure with mammograms, ultrasounds, doctors, clinics and biopsies in a foreign country, which I navigated mostly by myself. Something which would never have been the case if I were at home. Strap on your seat-belts, here we go, this is a long ride…..
I had an appointment with my phenomenal local doctor, Sorcha Dunne, who works at the nearby clinic. The clinic is just a mile from my cabin. I needed to go over blood work related to my thyroid condition. I had her check out the lump I found under my right underarm. Because the lump was painful and mushy, she was reassuring and said: “I’d like to put you on a high dose of anti-inflammatory medication for a week and then check this lump out again, in ten days. If it’s still there, then we’ll go nuclear.” So, I got on Ibuprofen 400 mcg three times a day.
I then had a freak-out, crying in the car, praying and I think I went swimming at the pool I just recently joined. I was torn about telling my husband, because I didn’t want to worry him unnecessarily. This lasted for one day. I realized that if he had something like this, even if it turned out to not be serious, I would want to be told. This is a complex issue in most families. Who do you tell, when do you tell, how do you tell? It’s more complicated for me right now because I’m on a retreat NOT talking to all my people and family as I normally would. It’s also expensive to communicate with folks in the states from here and there’s the time difference as well.
So, I called my most magnificent husband. I cried and he agreed that it was right of me to call him. He then said he would do anything I needed and over the week I was on the Ibuprofen I talked to him at all hours of his day and mine. We strategized, he listened to me and supported me in all the ways I needed. We agreed that we would tell family after I had my follow-up visit, in case there was no more to the story, I didn’t feel like causing an uproar of fear in those I love.
I have escorted two dear friends across death’s door from breast cancer. I have two friends who are in remission/recovering from breast cancer, minus their breasts and after intense medical engagements. I have one friend still in a very long battle with lymphatic cancer. I have lost two other friends in the last year from cancer as well, not breast cancer though. In my community I am often the person you call when you are sick or dying because I was the Chair of our Hevra Kadisha (Sacred Society/Burial Society). You can read all about that here: Life and Death Matters
Death, medical challenges, and family complexity around all of this are all very familiar to me. I am often the person who is the medical advocate for my friends or others when they are navigating illness. I know this landscape from the helper side, not from the patient side. Ummmm, they’re really different! It’s a whole other world when you are the one in the scary seat.
A moment to talk about being an ALPHA female. In almost every situation I will be the alpha, I will take charge if taking charge needs to happen. This is a huge asset for the folks I help. It’s not always an asset though and I have to work very hard to not be the loudest, biggest, most intense person in any room. I pretty much have to crank the volume down on who I am all the time. The volume knob on the Nicole Being is permanently worn on the turn down side. Most folks experience me as taking up a lot of space, physically, verbally, and spiritually. This is me with my volume turned DOWN really hard.
It’s actually exhausting to always have to crank myself down, down, down. Part of why I am here away from most human contact is because the trees and the river and the birds and the angels have NO problem with my volume and I feel so safe and free with them. If you could see my energetic being it would be the size of a small sea. I’m not kidding. And everyone wants a wild body of water in their living room taking up space, on the sofa, right?
So, what happens for me when I have to divert my attention from keeping my volume turned down to be in HYPER-FUNCTION mode is that I get less good at being smaller, and I also forget things and make mistakes.
Well, I still had a lump on Monday, February 29th, Leap not for Joy!
So, then Sorcha referred me to the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin for a triple assessment; Mammograms, Ultasounds and Biopsies. This is “going nuclear,” which I thought was a metaphor, but actually it is called nuclear medicine. I’m not sure if she meant it metaphorically or not, but that’s how I heard it and that’s how I experienced it is as well.
Remember I’m in Ireland. I was told it would be two or three weeks before I could be seen for this consultation. Well, that didn’t work for me or my husband. I’d already been in a state of limbo and who knew how long that lump had been in my boob before I noticed it. One of my friends had such a fast growing breast cancer that a few weeks made a difference and because she was extremely on top of her situation, with two small children, she immediately had surgery and is alive and well today. Three weeks felt like an eternity to me. My husband asked me to talk with one of my sisters by love (name will not be given), who is also one of my doctors back in the states.
I’d been hesitant to do so because she’s a busy single-mom who just brought her mother home with metastasized pancreatic cancer and is taking care of her and her step father in her tiny home following her own painful divorce. But, Kevin insisted that she needed to be brought into the loop, so I called her and woke her up at 11 pm her time, 6 am my time. We talked for an hour and she said she wanted me to at least see if I could get an ultrasound sooner. She urged me to be pushy and she reassured me that based on my description it was probably not breast cancer, but let’s not wait to find that out.
So, as soon as the local clinic opened I called and said I couldn’t wait three weeks to get this consultation and asked if I could get part of it done sooner locally. Dublin is three hours and a whole world away from me here. Within an hour or so, Mary, the receptionist, called me back and said she had secured the appointment for me for the following day at 2:30 pm. PERFECT! I felt a little bit like an “ugly American” but Mary and Sorcha both reassured me. If I did have cancer, I’d have to be packing up and heading home for surgery, my situation was just not simple. Somehow between the angels, the extraordinary efforts of these magnificent local folks, some serious Mazel/Luck and the fact that I would be paying privately, I got into the special hospital in Dublin very quickly.
So, I threw some clothes into a bag, got all my paperwork together and asked one of the nuns to give me a ride to the train station in two hours. I got on the 1:00 pm train to Dublin. While on the platform waiting, I spoke with the Mater Private and asked for the nearest hotel. The receptionist said to try the Maldron Parnell Square and to mention I should get the special rate for their patients. I called them and asked to book a room for two nights. They only had one room available for that night, but I figured I might get lucky once I got there and anyway, I could always switch hotels if I had to.
So, on the train I went. I brought my knitting and my iPad with several novels on it. I spent time on my phone with my travel insurance AIG, and they were pretty wonderful. They assigned me a real person who called me every day and helped me get things figured out. I definitely was in hyper-function mode, which is what had to be done. No room for feelings.
I do need to share that when I first found the lump I did share that information with my Carmelite sisters and brothers here at my Hermitage. They were AMAZING. One of the nuns had a breast cancer scare which turned out to not be cancer. She came over and reassured me. The others also all put me in their prayers and were completely caring and present for me. Lots of hugs and kindness. So, even though I wasn’t with my normal crew of folks I was surrounded by their love. Additionally, my foot reflexologist neighbor, Rachel Dooney, and my chiropractor Sheila O’Brien were very available. Sheila, had also gone through this breast lump territory and procedures and not had breast cancer. So, all of these folks were there for me and praying for me and sending me love and support.
Once I got to Dublin, I took a taxi to the hotel. The staff was completely multicultural, Indian, Brazilian, Spanish, Moldovan, Basque to name just a few. I loved all the accents and languages and every person there was generous, kind and solicitous of me. They printed out my medical documents, release forms for me and even faxed them for me, free of cost. They just went out of their way to be helpful.
I got to speak Spanish and my tiny drop of Russian also, which was fun and distracting, two things that are helpful when you are freaking out about possibly having cancer. I ate at the hotel for dinner and went to see Big Maggie (a play I’d been hearing about on the radio and which has been sold out for months). I figured I’m in the country of the Bards and I am going to try to distract myself and have some fun. I booked my ticket while on the train into Dublin and got a pretty good seat about five rows from the stage a little to the left of center. The show was very intense and powerful and I am sooooooo glad I saw it. The theater, the Gaiety, is very old and beautiful with red velvet everywhere and sculpted ivory-colored angels and flowers all over the place as well as having a huge crystal chandelier. the acting was stunning and excellent and inspiring.
After the show I returned to the hotel and attempted to sleep. Guess how that went? So, reading, phone calls to my husband, solitaire and several episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun were watched instead. I had two hot, hot baths as well. Perhaps I got three hours of sleep (which is my average on a bad night). Around five a.m. I got up and prayed the morning service. This takes me between two to three hours. I read, chant or sing the prayers in Hebrew, then in English. I cry through most of them, so that means it just takes me a while. My tears were not just unique to this intense and fraught time.
I cannot get through three or more words of any prayers without tears of joy, gratitude, and awe. Sometimes sadness too, but that’s not really what the tears are about, they still slow me down time-wise. Perhaps, they swim their way to heaven along the river of the water falling from my eyes. I have stopped judging this. This phenomenon has been constant for me since I came to Ireland. It was pretty frequent before I came on retreat, but there is no one to judge me, wonder if I am okay, or otherwise interrupt my process here, so I have gotten to deepen in all my spiritual practices, which is exactly why I am here!
I am reminded of the story my Rabbi Naomi Steinberg tells about Reb Zusya. Reb Zusya is a simple poor fellow. There are many stories about him and I may not have this one exactly right. The one I am thinking about is a story where someone is commenting to the Rabbi about how Reb Zusya can never get more than two or three words into a prayer before he faints or, the less kind, assume he has fallen asleep. When asked about this Reb Zusya tries to explain that just saying “Baruch Ha-Shem” Blessed is the Name, makes him see the throne of Glory and it causes him to start contemplating the fountain of blessings flowing from the Divine. This throws him into a profound state of awe and trembling and he is overcome. Since almost all of the prayers start this way he can never get past those first few words, and in fact he faints trying to explain this. I think it is the Rabbi in the story who chastises and informs the others about the holiness of Reb Zusya and his devotion and engagement with Holiness.
I’m no Reb Zusya, but I do experience tremendous energy, angels and wonder. This happens for me whenever I pray in Hebrew or chant or am engaged in Holy prayer or meditation with others in any language or religion. If the heart is present, then I feel that in all my cells.
It was good to pray, in my hotel room in Dublin, it’s always good for me to pray. It just takes me a long time and I get wet.
So, after praying I went downstairs for breakfast and headed into town to get my underarms and legs sugar-waxed. I had asked the nurse about if I should shave and she said yes, so I treated myself to that. You may not think a sugar wax hair removal is a treat, but it doesn’t involve me taking a razor to my skin and lasts longer and reminds me of the Hammam Pacha (something I hope to write about soon). I had time for lunch and found a delicious Nepalese restaurant called Diwali. It was so quiet, with a large screen full of images of nature playing, soft raga music, quiet diners and large fish tanks full of beautiful fish; it was a sanctuary in the midst of busy loud, thronging Dublin. The food was EXCELLENT!
The woman Lindsay, who did my waxing, was great. Her business is called The Sugarist. She is from Seattle and we had a great set of conversations full of feminism, food, politics and lots of other great chatter. She was excellent. Alas, finally it was time to head to the hospital, so I hailed a taxi and dropped my big bog boots and large jacket off at the reception desk and got back in my taxi. Once at the Mater Private Hospital I was treated with tremendous kindness and graciousness. There were about seven other women,with their friends or spouses in the breast treatment area. I was the only person by herself, but I know lots of folks were praying for me and thinking about me.
I didn’t have to wait too long before I was called in for the first set of Mammograms. I’m not going to describe those. If you’re a woman over 40 you should know what I’m talking about. If you’re not a woman, this is one of the things you can be very grateful you do not have to go through. So, they took lots and lots of shots of my right breast and several of my left. The technicians were funny, kind and gentle–even if the machines are the exact opposite of that.
Then I went back out into the small waiting area and after another not too long wait I was ushered into the ultrasound room. The doctor Michelle McNicholas was a redhead and I love redheads! She and I also share a name, since Nicole is in her last name. She gooped up my breasts and started looking around. She didn’t seem too concerned and said so, she found a second large lump on my left breast which I was unaware of. This is when you start to really get afraid, if you’re me, even if the doctor is saying reassuring things. She said she wanted another set of mammograms for the left side, since we hadn’t done as many on that side and she wanted to see a certain view. So, back to the Mammogram Monster Machines I went. More mushing and smashing and then back into the ultrasound room. Michelle was very reassuring and said she really didn’t think I had anything to worry about. The tissue looked like and was behaving like “fat necrotic” tissue.
She and I agreed that we still should do a biopsy. I was there, I was lumpy, I wanted to be certain that I didn’t have breast cancer. So, I was then numbed up on my left breast and she did two fine-needle biopsies. I didn’t feel these, at the time, but they have scary noisy loud clicks which the doctor warned me about. Then I got dressed and went back to the waiting area. There was one more doctor to see.
I really loved the process of this place. It was multi-pronged with procedures and tests but also with a follow-up conversation and final exam with a second doctor. I just felt completely covered, seen and cared for and all of it was going on in one small area of a larger hospital. So, the nurse for Professor Gory (the name of my last doctor, really!), came searching for me. She tried to pronounce my last name, and I told her, never mind, just say Frank and don’t bother with the Barchilon. She said Dr. Gorey, when looking at my chart, commented that I must be French. So, as I walked into his room, I greeted him in French.
The whole exam went on in French, much to my delight, and his. There was a little English for his nurse too. It was somehow so comforting and friendly to be laughing and chatting in French. His French was excellent. So, he did a final exam on my breasts with his hands and then sat me down and said. “I’m almost certain you have absolutely nothing to worry about.” We will get back to you on Monday with the Biopsy results, but my advice is that you have a mammogram in two years and that you ONLY examine your breasts once a month. I know you’ll probably want to do it more frequently, but don’t make yourself crazy.” We shook hands and I went to pay the bill, feeling fairly relieved in general.
So, for all of this care, which I cannot even imagine the cost of in the U.S. I paid 1,100 Euros total for Mammograms, Ultrasound, Biopsies, Doctors, technicians, local anesthetic, etc….I think the cost for all of that would be ten times or more for the procedures and consultations. I wasn’t happy to shell out that money, but it will hopefully be reimbursed to me by my travel insurance. I’m sure that reimbursement and paperwork process will be much longer than the medical one!
I walked back to my hotel, which was about ten blocks from the hospital. I took 1000 mg of Paracetamol (like Tylenol) and went for a nap in my room, or an attempt at a nap. I spoke with my brother and his partner and also with my husband and then went out for a really fancy dinner at a place recommended to me by the front desk staff. It was called Chameleon. I asked the Brazilian at the front desk where I could find good spicy food within walking distance. This place was an Indonesian fusion type place that they had heard was very good. I checked it out on my iPhone and walked to it, it was about a twenty-minute walk. I had a phenomenal meal there and will definitely eat there when I’m in Dublin again.
Now it’s all about the waiting for the test results and the anxiety around that. I’ll keep this part fairly brief, although my wait for the results was not brief. On the Monday, five days after my biopsies, I got a call saying they wouldn’t have my results until Wednesday. I was reassured this did not mean anything bad, but there was no way for me to not feel anxious. More crying, phone calls with my husband, strategizing about leaving my retreat early if I needed to and walks and prayers. On the said Wednesday, I got a call saying they needed to do a second stain and that the results of that wouldn’t be in until the following Monday.
I sort of blanked out, at this point, on the phone with the nurse, panic on my part. My husband stayed calm when I told him and said perhaps they’d made a mistake or ??? I asked the insurance medical helper person to tell me what getting a second stain meant and they gave me a very cogent response that was reassuring and said that double-checking by doing a second stain of my tissues was a very good protocol. I still felt totally freaked-out, but was trying to stay positive.
Come Monday, a full twelve hellish days, after the biopsies, I called the hospital first thing in the morning. I was told they couldn’t tell me the results and that the report was forwarded always to my general/referring doctor. This was different from previously, since Louise, the nurse at Mater Private, had called me with information all the other times. Fear set in. I called my doctor’s office and Mary said they didn’t have anything yet. A few hours later I got a call from Louise telling me that there was NO CANCER! She said they’d just gone over the results and had a meeting, their protocol, and she called me as soon as it was finished. I must have gotten someone on the phone the first time who was either new or not aware of the situation. You can imagine my joy and relief.
So, that’s the end of this saga! My youngest son is here visiting right now. We’re enjoying the most beautiful sunny weather, walks, my cooking, and we’ll head to Dublin for a show and dinner at Chameleon before he flies home. I’m a very lucky and grateful woman!!!!
Ethan laying in the non-cancerous lumpy, soft, mushy grassy knolls on the walk to one of the Holy Wells near my cabin. Sun, Son and Supreme Joy and Beauty!
Not doing, not buying, not writing, not eating, not consuming, not pushing for things to happen, not having seconds, not watching a movie, not getting up, not being quiet, not praying, not being still, not, not, naught.
I’m struggling with the nots or the knots of what my “time off” is supposed to be or look like. In the beginning I found myself responding to questions about what I am doing here with hyperbolic statements about all the books I plan to write and all the study of Torah I need to do or am doing, and the hours of prayer I am engaging in.
The reality of this time right now is actually very complex and nothing like what I anticipated. My new friend Paddy Rolleston (a local potter who comes monthly to help folks learn to work with clay) very wisely said to me, when I shared my current difficulties and self-doubts:
“What we anticipate is never what ends up happening.”
This is proving to be true. While much of my time is unfolding as I’d imagined it to or anticipated, most of it is not. The layers and strands of who I am and what is happening here is very much like the unwinding of a large spool of yarn, except I’m not some neatly woven non-sticky polyester blend on a spool. I’m this massively complex and wooly skein that has gotten all twisted and worn over the 51 years of my moving about on this planet. I am here trying to unravel myself and find the center again.
It is NOT easy. It is easy to fall back into patterns and just give up on the untying of any particular knot in this massive mess of me. So, the old, comfortable ways of being and doing is something I fall into. Then I have to unwind or climb back out again.
I do not want to behave as I have. This is not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with who I am or how I am or have been. It is because I am trying to experience something luminous, liminal and clean.
Perhaps that is hubris and ridiculous. But, there are so many hours and moments of just that kind of time here, that I know I can actually, if I unravel some more of me, get to walk in the Divine Mist and Mystery and let the Holy One help me re-make myself.
Perhaps it is just a refinement that will be asked of me, but perhaps it is a complete transformation. The problem with going into this territory is that it is not something I can control or know. It is, by its very nature, like going into a deep pool or a misty valley that I have never had the time to just be in. It is a maze and I have a hunger, in the core of my being, that is like a fierce magnet pulling from my heart begging me to keep going.
But, it’s easier to drive into town once a week and buy the groceries I want, than it is to continue moving through the maze or unraveling this ball of yarn. I find myself not sleeping, this is not new territory. So, I move between getting up and doing some kind of project, craft or cleaning, or I play solitaire for an hour on my iPad or I read or I watch a movie on my computer. In the middle of the night I also go out for walks in the rain and wind. I sing to the stars and give thanks to the Divine for the glory of night. I write in my journal or on my blog. I eat.
I do not meditate or get still as much as I think I should, another not/ knot. Here, the biggest knot is the self-judgement. This knot is fueled by all the little comments of friends and family, like a hyper sensitive piece of microfiber cloth every tiny thing clings to me, all the little completely not harmful or intended to be harmful things that people have said or say enters me like a piercing needle.
I’m sensitive again, way beyond what I anticipated. What is scary about this is that I actually expected to be completely raw and vulnerable and cried rivers about my fear around this before leaving for retreat. I’m already way tooooooooo sensitive.
When I say I’m an Empath, it doesn’t really make sense to people, I see the fear and confusion on their faces. “That’s just Nicole beings whimsical and romantic and exaggerating again.” Some folks understand, but feeling all that I feel has always been overwhelming and something both fearful and extraordinary for me.
From a very early age I realized that how I was experiencing the world was not how others were and this made me so lonely, but also afraid. I read a lot. I always have. I resembled, as a child, and now as a woman, I still do, all the stories of the fey and the witches. I could feel and see and do things that others didn’t seem to be feeling. Besides all the literature about witch trials and all the women put away in mental institutions for the crime of being wild and female, I am Jewish to boot. The fear of revealing who I am has been with me my entire life. Will I be put away, labeled as crazy, disregarded because I am so clearly other or seen as delusional?
Once I became a mother, these fears grew. I knew that I had to really tamp down, and hard on who I was. I needed to endeavor to look somewhat normal. It was okay to be a loud, vivacious woman. It wasn’t okay to talk about my dreams or how I feel the pain in people. It is and was okay for me to feed folks and cook for them and make soup, but it wasn’t okay to say I was weaving a spell of love and healing into every cut of my knife or stirring of my spoon. It was okay to be an environmentalist, but it wasn’t okay to lie naked on the ground and talk to the earth and cry with her and feel her heart-beat.
I talk to the stars and the blades of grass. I sing with the birds and I talk to the cows in the field. I not only hug trees but I commune with them. I feel the pain in those around me like a constant throbbing that I am dancing with at all times and searching, searching constantly for ways to ease.
No wonder I can’t sleep. So, all of this is going on and more, much, much more. In Rabbi Gershon Winkler’s book The Magic of the Ordinary, he talks about Jewish Shamanism. I am not sure I am comfortable with that term for myself. I’m searching for the right word to describe who I am, when that is, of course, an impossibility.
“Jewish Shamanism involves engaging various spirit beings, either through meditative trances or through the invocation of any variety of Sacred Names that serve to call into being specific changes in the external environment. Jewish shamanism is also about a way of thinking, a way of being in the world, a way of consciousness that perceives magic in the ordinary, miracle in the ‘natural course of events.’ Where most people will be awestruck at the sight of a passing comet, the Jewish shaman will be awestruck at the sight of a fallen leaf.” Rabbi Gershon Winkler , Magic of the Ordinary, Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism
I read this piece the other day and cried and laughed. The falling leaves have been making me cry and revel and move me beyond belief. So, when Gershon says a “Jewish Shaman will be awestruck at the sight of a fallen leaf.” I crack up, because this is EXACTLY the territory I am in right now. I don’t need to pray for five hours, every second here is a kind of prayer. As I clean my space, I am cleaning the detritus of my internal space. My body is my home, my home is my body, my body is my home, my home is my body and if you are in my home, your are in my body. This is just how it is for me.
I sometimes call myself a Wild Woman or a Jewish Witch. I’m not afraid anymore of being burned at the stake, although my memory, my soul memory, recalls those flames. Wild Woman comes closest because it expresses my relationship to nature, my engagement with it and there is the quality of the untamed and uncontrollable or manageable to the word and world of Wildness. So,Hiney Ni/Here I am, in this rural and somewhat tame, while at the at the same time, Wildish Magic Island of Ireland.
You only have to leave a plot of earth alone for a few weeks or months for it to start to return to its wild nature. If we don’t cut the grass or plow the field or fix the cracks in the concrete or maintain the road, nature will invariably re-claim her space. Grass will grow and bugs will come and the movement of wind, water, creatures and growth will shape the landscape according to the whim or desire of the Creator. We have to constantly hew out our place here, when we are trying to control our environment.
I have no desire to control the earth. I much prefer to walk on wobbly earth, to navigate the brambles and weeds, to garden gently with the earth. And yet, I like going to the store and buying the avocados that were grown in Mexico. Did I mention, I’m in Ireland, so to get that avocado to my cabin here, if I trace the path back, I’ve used up thousands of hours of resources, time, energy, fuel, and participated in a cycle of destruction of our planet, just because that avocado appealed to me and I wanted to make beans and rice and guacamole. That’s another one of my messy knots. I can buy the local beans and Irish rice, but I want my avocado flavor. Simple and I, moderation and I, doing less and I, just are NOT related.
Nevertheless I am continuing to unravel and unwind here. The leaves on this tree, being whipped by the winds and the rains and the cold frost, are whittling away who I am. As the new moon of Kislev appears in my window, I call out to her cold sliver. I am moving inward, hibernating and lessening the activities, curling inward and slowing, slowing.
And, this is my Shabbat year, my Jubilee Year, my Shabbat of Shabbats and if I just roll around on the floor or want to read 300 books and ignore whatever agenda I think I need to adhere to, or someone else thinks I do, then that is what this Wild, Wacky, Witchy Woman will do or NOT do!