My bones are cozy and waking up at the moment. It’s 7:00 a.m. in Ireland at Holy Hill Hermitage on February 16, 2016 as I write these words. The wind is swooshing and whooshing at 22 mph, which is about average for the last few months of storms. My bones don’t go walking when the wind is that fierce, but the view of the trees and the ivy dancing and shaking fiercely is quite inspiring. Because I’m in my sabbatical hermitage time, I do not have to battle the wind or go anywhere physically. In my cabin, named after St. Clare, I am dry, warm and safe. I’ve been here since July of 2015 and will be finished with my sabbatical by May of 2016. I am 51 years old, a Jewish Lay-Leader, Mother, Writer, Cook and Healer (all in capitals with intention). My hard-working bones and body needed a year-off between raising family, being very active in my community, and moving into the second half of my life. My body was exhausted, which is quite common for anyone who cares about others or the planet, even if you are not a parent. I was literally limping when I made it here and in constant pain.
By the time you reach 50, which is young, really, but as a woman it marks the transition years of menopause; everything gets drier, bonier, your emotions, your whole physical reality shifts massively and you feel it in your bones. Not everyone works their systems as hard as I’ve worked my body, but all of us need respite and time to contemplate and allow for bone time. Time that is slower, time that is not rushing and that is deep and structural, bone time.
It’s a common fallacy, propagated by the media and society everywhere, that speed is better, youth is better and all of our technology and systems are designed for the opposite of bone time. Youthful healthy happy bodies are great, and often as the old saying goes “wasted on the young.” But, trying to perpetuate a young, speedy body is not great and actually exactly the wrong direction to go in. Our bodies are Holy vessels, gifts from the Divine, sacred vases to hold our souls.
It’s lovely to inhabit a healthy one, even an aching one, but they aren’t our permanent homes. They are our transitional dwellings. If we are only body, pleasure seeking and speed focused we never engage with our souls and their needs. Not connecting with our souls is wreaking havoc on the structure of life on our planet. If the earth had a skeleton, her bones would be broken, from our lack of regard, from fracking, from ignoring the call of her rivers, all her creatures (including human suffering) and all the messages being sent from her soul and her bones.
When we stop and listen to the wind, or to the silence, or the birds, something magnificent unfolds within us and within the larger home of all our bodies. All of a sudden we get to hear the music of the Divine, and the lament, however we name that. You cannot hear that music as easily if you are rushing or just focused on looking good and feeling good personally. You hear and experience your soul and your bone-marrow knowing, when you are quiet, when you are engaged in loving or helping others, when you are in contemplation, prayer, communion.
I’m not saying that the way one feels after moving in an aerobic or physically strenuous way isn’t also important or can’t get you to a feeling of connection. For some folks that is where they experience their only sense of communion. I do not think that we can ever, at this point in human history, say it’s possible to have enough folks seeking communion. All of us need to listen more to the call of our bones, to the marrow of the matter. We have to SLOWWWWWW way down and hear our beating hearts and watch the birds or the river or the clouds, or listen to the symphony with our whole beings and offer thanks to the Holy One.
We all have to search for the link connecting us one to the other, where I am part of this earth’s structure, her pinky finger or one tiny filament of bone in her being and you are another. We’ve been gifted with bodies and a home for them to live on, not attending to the WHOLE being of that gift, the gifts of our souls and of our interconnection and need for each other wounds us all and is literally bone-crushingly wrong.
I’m in a state of perpetual tear-filled gratitude for my bone-time, my down time, my slow time to be with the earth, with folks in gentle prayer and song. I’m also grateful for the long walks in the hills and the help of Healers and Holy Wells and all the ways being engaged with the earth in my body and bones is working to ease my pain. I try to walk gently on the earth and hope that my time here is a gift to her and to those few folks I have and do encounter on retreat. I pray with the wind and the frost, the sunshine and rainbows between storms and all the birds of the skies here for all beings to be well, to find each other and to be engaged in deep communion, bones, bodies, hearts, minds and souls all together in reverence, service and joy.
This piece was originally published in the Spiritual Life Institute’s Fall 2016 publication: Desert Call
**I will be writing extensively about Mikveh, my practice with Living Water, streams, Lagoons, the Ocean and other bodies of water that are living in the near future.
I ordered a shofar from “the Tallit Man,” an operation out of Florida. Along with the shofar, the owner made a YouTube for me, with my shofar, showing me how it sounds and that it sounds. A shofar is made from a ram’s horn.
“All horns may be used, except those of cows and oxen, because their horn is called keren and not shofar. And also the horn of the cow and the ox is not acceptable because the accuser must not be made to serve the defender, that it may not be said: Yesterday they made the golden calf, and today they come to appease their Maker with the horn made from it.” ~S. Y. Agnon (from page 246 of Mahzor Hadesh Yameinu ~Renew Our Days~A Prayer-Cycle for Days of Awe~ Edited and translated by Rabbi Ronald Aigen
Jewish folks blow the shofar during the month of Elul, in the mornings, except on Shabbat. We blow it also to usher in our New Year called Rosh Hashanah and to mark the end of Yom Kippur. We blow it whenever we want to pierce the protections around our hearts and also the layers of klippot (hard shells created by our wrongdoings) that obscure our pure and radiant souls. It is not an easy sound, it is not an easy thing to make a sound with.
I think, other than ancient shepherds, the sounds I’ve been making in the hills of Eire with my ram’s horn are pretty unique. Although the cows across the stream in the next field and I seem to be communing as a result. Also, the crows don’t seem to mind the sound. The sound is supposed to remind us of the Akedah, (the story of Abraham and his sacrifice/binding of Isaac). At the very last second, an angel points out the ram in the bushes and the ram becomes the sacrifice, not Isaac. But Isaac was the sacrifice and this story is a haunting and intense one. There are many, many interpretations of it, perhaps another time, I’ll give you some of them.
I need to get back now, here and now, to “my Elul” in Eire. So, the loud, Jewish, Alpha female is living at a silent Catholic Carmelite Hermitage/monastery, no, this is not the beginning of a joke, but it could be. Here are some of the practices, sayings, rules here: No Fuss, Silence from 7pm-9am, every day (exception of prayers said in mornings and evenings), Silence Mondays-Tuesdays (complete day), Silence for a full week once a month, oh yes, silence in general, unless you really have to ask a question, but even then it’s preferred if you write a note. Oh and let’s not forget the basic vows of Catholic religious folks: Obedience, Chastity and Poverty.
Those of you who actually know me, are going to be laughing hard right now. I am the opposite of “No Fuss.” Obedience and I have never been cozy, Chastity and I aren’t and never have been related and while I’ve lived in poverty in my single-mother years, it was never something I wanted to be doing. Simplicity and I are also like oil and water. If I can make something spicier, more involved, more complicated, then I usually do. Visually my home, body and any spaces I live in, are fully colored, adorned and they are also full of imagery and visual patterns. I am also the opposite of moderated, quiet, and sparse.
When I got to my simple cabin named “Clare” for the companion of St. Francis of Assisi, I opened a card from one of my dear friends. She had instructed me not to open it ” ‘til you get to your cabin in Ireland.” So, I opened it to one of her original art pieces with Hebrew teachings. It said: “I am dust and ashes” in Hebrew and English. I broke into tears, and am doing so now. This person knows me very well and is my “spiritual buddy,” I’ve given her permission to always say the hard things to me and to help me grow and she does. Five minute pause to sob here….that’s what I just did.
Elul is about self-examination. I timed my arrival here so that I would be here in time to have the full month of Elul in this space where all I get to do, if I choose to, is self-examine and correct. So, here where it is actually more perfect than I could ever have imagined, with robins, swallows, crows and the wind as my companions, I am and have been looking deeply at myself.
I do this every Elul, but this Elul is different because I am alone. Except, I feel anything but alone. The presence of the Divine is with me all the time and the Holy One is more accessible to me here, because there is no NOISE and no DOUBT and no INTERRUPTIONS to my connecting. The only sounds I hear from my cabin, are the stream outside my window, the crows, the cows, and the wind or rain. I can avoid seeing all people by choosing what hours I go to the main house to get my food or do my laundry, or I can choose to see folks but go on a day of silence so no conversations will ensue. Or, I can choose to join the people here in prayer and silent meditation on the days when that is happening.
I didn’t think I would set foot in their chapel. I mean no offense to my Christian friends, but hanging out with a cross on a wall while I am praying, has never been something easy for me. I used to have violent images come up for me with crosses and pyres of Jews combined, the crosses pushing the Jews into the flames. That is not the case for me here. First of all, it’s a beautiful space where the hermitage folks pray, very simple wooden small space, “no fuss,” and thankfully those images, from my people’s historic past, are no longer haunting me.
The most luminous part of being in this place and worshiping with these folks, is that everyone here is in love with Ha-Shem. The deep delight and beauty of that is extraordinary for me. It’s a feast for me to be around people who are in a relationship with Holiness that is not a chimera or philosophy. These folks have been living a religiously engaged life for their entire lives. They are not neophytes at worship, at communion, at listening to the voice in the silence. They are deep practitioners and to be in their presence is to be in the presence of Peace and Holiness. (Don’t worry, I’m not planning to become a Carmelite Nun).
I know this feeling of complete connection. I’ve had it whenever and wherever I go that people are not in question about the presence of the Divine in their world. I have experienced it with my Moslem friends, with my Jewish friends, with my Buddhist friends, with my Wiccan friends and my Native American Friends, with my Hindu friends. I experience it wherever folks are connecting from a place of love to the Divine, however they define that. I do not want to cause any distress to anyone who does not have this feeling. I am just trying to explain that the environment here is very different from the world at large. This place is steeped in and radiates Relationship to Reverence.
That’s why I’m here. Hee Ney Ni-Here I Am, which is what Abraham says to Ha-Shem when he is called. It’s what I am trying to say here, every day. Here I am, in my mess, my mistakes, my loud intensity, my large appetites, and my fussy, particular, complicated humanness. As I get better at sounding the shofar, the layers of my junk, the hard shells that obscure my soul, are getting shattered. Shattering anything is not easy or gentle. While I am in a gentle landscape, the work I am doing is not particularly gentle. It’s ragged and rough. It’s dark here at night, all my fears come forward, all my pain around issues that are old and familiar for me emerge, all my missing of those I love, most especially my husband, comes to the forefront and I find myself sobbing and sobbing. AND, the Exciting and Enraptured part of this is that there is no one here to interrupt my process or for me to appease or be taken care of, so I get to go really deep and actually heal from my core.
The Angels and the Holy One are here taking care of me, the stream and the green leaves are here taking care of me, the roses outside my front door are taking care of me, the view of clouds crossing the sky is taking care of me, the silence and the stillness is taking care of me, the warm cup of milk I fix myself with honey, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla (not a simple, no-fuss glass of warm milk) is taking care of me. Hee Ney Ni, Here I Am, open to whatever needs to unfold.
This place is the safest, kindest place I’ve ever been in my entire life.
I have never felt more enclosed and able to be fully tender and exposed than here. The quality of this place is delicious and gentle and I feel held here in ways I cannot completely express. So, I’m not traveling to Dublin to spend the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah with other Jews. I’m staying here, and quietly and deeply saying the prayers that all my folks will be saying. I’ll play the recording, lovingly offered and made for me, of our Temple Beth El Choir, singing the songs they would be singing. I’ve actually been listening to it over and over, and sobbing or singing along. I miss my family, I miss my community and my friends. And, it is okay for me to miss them, because I am not missing my connection to what runs through all of us and the world. That is here for me in every breath, in every view, in every birdsong and stream sound and in the quiet smiles and presence of those around me who are also in communion with the Divine.
L’Shana Tova U’Metuka (A sweet New Year) I wish for you all.
Having moved across a great many miles by plane, train, taxi and using my own feet, I’ve arrived in the “major” town near where my solitary time will be. I have so many stories to tell about the last month of my life. Adventures in Paris, folks I spoke with, the Hammam Pacha in Paris (a Hammam Pacha Post coming in the future), the Lebanese restaurant Chez Nagi, the Gentle Gourmet (vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Paris), time with my husband that was precious beyond words, lovely luncheons with my father and Judy, long walks through Paris and pounding pavement and endless going up and down stairs in the metro, time at museums, moments of breathtaking wonderment at the master works of some of my favorite painters and discoveries of beauty and joys previously unknown.
But right now I’m in the county of Yeats’ child-hood in the home of Hadi and Lorena. I am watching a murder of crows or ravens wheel about and grab the grains of rice Hadi left out for them from last night’s Iranian feast. The garden is small; off their backyard. I arrived by train from Dublin’s 4pm train, where I flew into Ireland from Paris. I got here around 7pm in the evening, where I am (secret location), and I needed to find accommodation for one night. I knew this ahead of time and so while I was still in Paris I found several possible places to spend the night, thanks to Airbnb, that was easy. What was spectacular is that I landed here in the home of Hadi from Iran and his Lovely Irish wife Lorena.
What always amazes me is the way the Divine has such a light and lovely touch in my life at this point. Not sure if that is the Holy One taking a personal interest or more just my eyes opening and seeing things from a very specific kind of perspective. But basically, everyone I encounter and engage with, so far, on this journey has been a tremendous offering with something I specifically and deeply wished for and needed offered from out of seemingly nowhere, but clearly somewhere.
This is primarily a story about spices though. The people and the flavors I’ve encountered and the massive engagement with them and reveling in food that I have been on before heading into my more sparse and spare food reality. I knew that Paris would be a place of eating and no holds barred. Why bother being there if you aren’t going to have a chocolat chaud or a croissant or canard or plat des fromages or poisson cuit au amandes et miel? So, yes, a lot of good food has been eaten by me since I left my home, where I cook the good food. I did make a few meals for my beloved in Paris at our Airbnb flat, and one luncheon for Dad and Judy, but otherwise, I’ve been fed and not feeding others for the last month.
While writing this I got an email message from the person who will be picking me up in a few hours. Her message was she’d come get me from this home where I am, but she might be “late.” This is what I responded with:
“I’m writing up a storm here, enjoying the rain, the murder of crows in the yard and will keep my eyes open for you. There is no more late or early for me. I’m on the rain time, the Hermitage time, the time of Holy Happenings as they unfold in Grace.”
Just saying that makes me gleeful. Hadi, Lorena and I have just shared some coffee with honey and delicious almond raspberry cake, made by Lovely Lorena and, of course, more honey. Hadi is from Iran and just recently got to see his family after ten years apart. He has a twin brother and big family there. Because of the wounded crazy and politically complicated parts of our world, it is very hard for him, as a man of Iranian descent, to travel and connect to his family physically. This is part of my story that makes the tears flow.
When I arrived here, I entered in and smelled some very good cooking. I met these two lovely humans and after my long day of travel sat in their kitchen drinking water (tea was offered, but I wanted water). I said it smelled heavenly and wondered might I be able to join them for their dinner when it was ready. The answer was of course. So, I got an delicious Iranian dinner of lamb stew with lentils and an incredible yogurt dish and basmati rice. Hadi also regaled me with his tales about the wonders of honey and the many uses of honey. Hadi and his love of honey were very clear and Lovely Lorena mentioned that many, many. many spoonfuls of honey a day are consumed by her husband. It was clear to me that all the honey eating had made Hadi honeyed and I told Lorena that, let him keep eating all that honey, it’s clearly making him sweet!
Now onto the spicy part of this story.
So, while I was in Paris, I knew I needed to buy spices for whatever fare I’d be cooking and consuming in my small cabin. I am just fine with the idea of simpler meals and basic foods, which will be my lot starting tonight and on-wards for many months. I’m not okay without some spice or flavor to put on my legumes or zucchini or grains. So, I went to the market off Maison Blanche metro stop on l’avenue d’Italie on one of the market days, while I was in Paris. Hundreds of people walking in a tiny corridor between vendors offering their watermelons, fish, meat, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, clothing,flowers, bathroom supplies, perfumes, linens, electronics, all calling out to you, in French loudly; all hoping you’ll stop at their stall and not the one down the line for your apricots or your baguette.
I found a stall that was full of gorgeous dried fruits, buckets of olives in many different kinds of brines, nuts and middle-eastern foods, hummous, and baba ghanoush and anchovies and tzaziki and a large array of spices. YAY! I started asking the vendor if he had cumin, coriander, hot pepper, etc… He and I fell a little in love (my husband has been informed). Ramadan, that was his name, was probably somewhere between 60-75. It is hard to say because I’m terrible with figuring out how old or young a person is and he was un petit homme mais avec un grand coeur et un ravissant sourire (a small man but with a big heart and a delightful smile). He had a smooth beautiful hairless head and his skin was lovely and the color of roasted almonds and he was young-looking, but he wasn’t a young man. The first time we met, we just liked each other.
I knew I would come back to his stall and went back there on Sunday (the market was Thursdays and Sundays). I walked too many blocks between all the other vendors and found no Ramadan and his wares. I was very sad. The open air stall is a small representation of their larger presence in Paris called Le P’tit Souk, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to go there, so I thought this was my last chance and I missed it.
I found some time and tried again on the following Thursday and wonderfully, there he was. This is when the love-affair really began. A love affair of spices and enthusiasm over life and the Divine and living with flavor and joy. He kept exclaiming that I was a “femme exceptionelle, extraordinaire” and many other superlatives were used. Now, any vendor knows, complimenting your customer is a VERY good idea. But this wasn’t that. There was a connection and a spark between us, momentary, but real and so kind and genuine. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am always falling in love with everyone. Men, women, birds, beasts, flowers, paintings, the texture of a fine linen, a particular shade of orange on a woman’s dress, I’m just falling in love all the time and everywhere. This is not always so easy for those who love me, but at this point, my most beloved has gotten used to it.
So, I collected all the spices I needed and said Aleicum Salaam/ Aleichem Shalom (which is the farewell portion of the greeting Salaam Aleicum/Shalom Aleichem) to Ramadan and the P’tit Souk stall on avenue D’Italie. Because Sunday was Tisha B’Av, and I was fasting and chose to stay home and observe this day of mourning at “home,” I couldn’t get back to the P’tit Souk. And, perhaps he wouldn’t have been there. Unfortunately for me, the one spice I had forgotten to get was saffron, and I realized this but had no time to return to the market or go to another one before leaving for Ireland. Oh well, one can live without saffron.
But, not really, at least the Holy One and I are aligned in this manner. Ha-Shem gifted me with these people and upon entering the home of Hadi and Lorena and smelling the smells and starting the conversations before dinner, somewhere in all of this, Hadi started getting out all the spices he had brought back with him from Iran. Hadi and I began a conversation in spice and smells. When a good cook meets another good cook, just like gardener to gardener or painter to painter, you share your wares, your secrets, your seeds. So, he gave me a pot of something small and red to smell. I told him I had to say a blessing first before smelling something delightful. I said my blessing and smelled HEAVEN in crushed deep red saffron. I smiled and said, “saffron, from Iran or Turkey?” Hadi said:
“Iran, the best is always from Iran, never Turkey or anywhere else, Iran!”
I’d have to agree. A little while later he gave me a bag of his precious saffron and I almost cried. I’m crying now as I write this.
Perhaps a bag of saffron is not something that would make most people cry, but for me, it’s like being offered jewels or water in a desert. Spice and color are the oasis in a landscape that too many people have made barren and dull. For me, and for those who engage with spices and herbs, the boundaries of delight that we can create with a simple pinch of saffron or a drop of cinnamon or corriander, is our way of making magic real in this world, and on your tongue and in your body.
The Holy One made all of this and all of us, Ramadan the Parisian vendor, Hadi the honey-loving saffron sharing Irish-Iranian, Lorena the Lovely, kind and almond-cake making hostess. You and I and Mick, the Yeats’-quoting poetry taxi-driver and Gearard my train-ride companion for the three-hour train after Dublin, Caleb, the maintenance man, at the Paris flat who carried my hugely heavy suitcase up the two flights of tiny wooden stairs around 4pm in the month of Ramadan, when he hadn’t had any food or water, simply because he was kind and could see that it was going to be very hard for me to do. All of these people and more, all gifts along my path, shimmering jewels of human goodness and flavor that the Holy One has placed on my path as I make my way.
I have lots more stories to tell and I will tell them as they need to be told. For now, if you are in Paris, find the P’tit Souk stall on Avenue d’Italie, say Salaam Aleicum to Ramadan the spice vendor for me. Eat at the Lebanese restaurant Chez Nagi (I’ll tell that adventure, in detail, another time). Also, if you happen to be a vegetarian or love one, as I do, go to the Gentle Gourmet. It is not so easy to find truly Vegan/Vegetarian food when you are traveling, also they have gluten-free, soy-free, and vegan specialties, so if you have particular food requirements and allergies, this is the place for you. I’ll write up a longer narrative about that meal as well, later.
How kind of Ha-Shem to give me these folks and these moments of human connection with excellence and color before I head deep into stillness and contemplation. I’m grateful beyond words and ready to begin a different kind of journey. Heading out to my hermitage shortly and off to unknown territory, but in my bag, my heavy, heavy bag full of what I need for the next ten months, there is one ingredient, lighter than all the rest, it’s the one that will take me straight to Gan Eden/Paradise, the Iranian saffron given to Honey-Loving Hadi by his sweet mother and shared with me, here in Ireland.
How can you possibly doubt the presence of Holiness and Honeyedness (a new Nicole word), after hearing this story?
In love of honey, saffron, humans, crows, rain, Yeats and the green, green Isle of Eire,