I know better than to say anything external can make my life a living hell, but when Mani was very, very sick, I thought just that: Maybe her being very, very sick was making my life a living hell. In some ways, this was true. It was also making her life a living hell.
There was this one time, when I was writing about looking at that situation from someone else’s perspective, standing in someone else’s proverbial shoes, that I finally stepped into hers. Mind you, this was at a time when even a feather touch to her feet could send her through the roof with pain. No doctor could say what the source was of this peripheral neuropathy, but it definitely fell into the “living hell” category. I wrote and wrote. I got out of my own head. I got over myself for ten minutes, and then read her what I’d written. And it was one of those moments, a turning point — she felt heard and seen in a new way, and I felt less imprisoned by my own selfishness.
I spent the morning in synagogue. Not everyone, but many people were wearing all white, as is customary on Yom Kippur. I remembered for once to bring a tallit, or prayer shawl; when Mani and I got married two years ago, we ordered a two-person one from Israel, and they accidentally sent us two. So I brought the one that is all white and linen-colored. When we arrived (Pearl came with me and we sat in a row with my middle sister’s family; Aviva slept in as she attempted to fast), I lifted the tallit over my head as I’ve seen many others do. I did not say the actual blessing for wearing a tallit (Jews have a blessing for pretty much everything), but I did hover underneath it for a good long minute alone. And you know? It was a kind of paradise in there. It really was.
Under the tallit, I felt sheltered. I remembered that that space is always available to me, and asked myself in that silent place why I don’t take refuge there more often.
Same reason I don’t take refuge more often in general, comes the likely answer. On the yoga mat. In the woods or a bathtub. On a chair under a blanket with a book. Even in the kitchen, making a slow-cooked meal rather than a quick and easy one. So many places to find that readily available sensation of peace, and yet — I take detour after detour and then wonder, as if it’s some great mystery, why I am (fill in the blank — exhausted, headachy, grouchy, overwhelmed, etc).
The next hours were spend singing. Alternately sitting and standing. We got there when the sanctuary was pretty much filled up, so I did not have a machzor, or prayer book. And this was ok. It was paradise, too. Nothing to follow along with, no page numbers to keep track of. Just my voice joining with the ones beside, before, and behind me, following some ancient rhythms of collective responsibility and second chances.
This afternoon, Mani had a doctor’s appointment with her immunologist; he was blown away by how well she is doing — no wheelchair, no cane even, no epipen for over a year, and she has weaned herself off of some of the most hardcore opiates out there. (Can I get an amen?) He also brought up politics, and told us he’s been asking all of his patients for the past month or so who they’re voting for. We joked that seeing as we Jewish gay women who would very much like to stay legally married, he could probably guess.
While we were in the waiting room, I saw a post from writer Lesléa Newman in my Facebook feed. It was a photo of Matthew Shepard — his young, beautiful face accompanied by her words:
“In Judaism, the number 18 stands for life. Today is the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feels very significant to me. Matthew Shepard believed passionately in social justice. Let us carry on his legacy today and every day by working hard to make the world a more peaceful and kinder place for all.”
Seeing this the day after National Coming Out Day after spending the morning in communal prayer ushered me home to everything I hold dear: Being free to live one’s truth — and our collective responsibility to make sure doing so is safe and — better yet — embraced.
In fact, something Rabbi Weiner said this morning, while offering a blessing for those who rose with an intention to stand up and speak out for social justice in the new year, spoke to me so personally: Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired.
Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired. This was certainly true for me of coming out. And I can’t help but wonder — with a cautious tinge of optimism — if it could be true for our country, too.
And yet, for many people, coming out is not safe. There is no place of refuge for this emergence, one that so often requires breaking with one’s own past in profound ways. There may not be a welcome committee imagining life in your shoes, or waiting with warm cookies and a toaster oven. For many people, to come out — be it along the LGBTQ spectrum or in other ways, as artists, as activists, as women with stories we’ve never shared, as speaking in fierce opposition to power, as spiritual — is not only scary but unfathomable.
And that is truly a living hell: To have to wear a mask inside of your own life.
As Yom Kippur came to a close and I heated up a bowl of homemade chicken soup to break my fast, as the light began to go down over the blaze of October leaves, I considered the ways in which I want to seal the year behind us and welcome the one just now beginning. As an individual, yes, one who takes responsibility for my words and actions and their impact on others. And as a member of a community — the Jewish people, the American people — who is also responsibility for doing my part to ensure that ALL of us have safe spaces.
If my wife is in pain, I must step outside of myself to imagine her experience. If my fellow human must hide who she is, may my words and presence contribute some small dose of safety to her emergence. Refuge should not fall into the category of privilege or luxury. It can’t be bought, sold, or traded, nor are some of us more deserving than others.
May 5777 — and November 8 — bring evidence that we will uphold this truth not only as self-evident, but as sacred and civic duty, individually and collectively.