Take Off Your Shoes: Rachel Naomi Remen and Passover Blessings

Originally published on April 8, 2009.
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Jordan Whitt

Unknowable questions are on sale today at Price Chopper, right there next to the kosher-for-passover marshmellows. There is a confluence of ingredients here, cleaning out the pantry, feeling the gentle pressure on the top of my head of a living god dancing. Where once mastery was the goal, now it is mystery that overflows from the shelves.

What exactly am I talking about, you ask? I’m not sure yet, but I’m hoping to find out.

**

We went to hear Rachel Naomi Remen speak two nights ago. One of her books, My Grandfather’s Blessings, sits in duplicate on the bookshelf next to my desk here; two close friends have given it to me unbeknownst to each other over the past few years. When I began writing here about some of the longing and angst, the searching and seeking and finding home having to do with my Jewish journey, it is the book I read in three hours flat. And here it is, signed now by Rachel herself. “I’m a writer,” I stammered, second in line after the applause ended and the lights went up. “May your words shine!” she wrote.

She is an incredible storyteller. She also became a physician at a time when there was no place, no right, scarcely even the thought, to acknowledge the sacred and mysterious aspects of illness, of healing, of death. She spoke of creating space for this, quoting from Jewish sources here and there: Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground. No, not holy ground over there, not in the holy land, not in the temple or the church, the labyrinth or the sanctuary, but here, right here on your bathroom mat, in your oldest robe. Right here, in the kitchen where you spend so many of your waking hours, feeding and taking care. Right here, holy, as you weigh yourself or rush to work, late again, trying not to yell at your kids. Right here, it is holy ground. Take off your shoes.

“We have traded mystery for mastery,” she said. “All of our beliefs are provisional, and life may be quite different than what we presumed it to be.” Surely it’s no coincidence that these words are so similar to the ones I quoted from Joseph Campbell recently: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” She described meeting Campbell at Esalen in the early 70s; she was part of a group of medical doctors at the frontier of exploring mind-body connections, at a time when “holistic medicine” didn’t exist yet in the West. (There she and her colleagues were on their first evening there, sitting down to dinner in their suits and twinsets (she was the only woman), only to realize that half of their dinner companions were stark naked!) Anyway, Campbell went on to show a slideshow of sacred images and icons, including a life-sized projection of Shiva, who is dancing on the head of a little man. The little man is so caught up in examining a leaf, so intent on the physical world, so myopic really, that he doesn’t realize that the living god is dancing on his back. The doctors were humbled.

And we, the listeners Monday night, all saw ourselves I think, saw all the ways in which we miss it, miss the mystery and the magic that is happening all around us, right this very minute, right at our feet and on our heads. How our bottomless searching, striving, aspiring, consuming, improving and proving is all provisional. How we carry around such small beliefs about ourselves and about the world that limit what we see, how we see.

**

I want to see, to stand here, to sit, with enough stillness that the constant swirl of information and input can whirl around me without me spinning like a top. I want to open my eyes, like I did this morning after a ridiculous and particularly failed episode of parenting, when I sat down on the floor cross-legged, across from Aviva, took a couple of breaths, then spoke to her in such a hushed voice she was startled into listening. This led to a hug, and I decided to learn something from the botched morning rather than beating myself (or her) up about it.

Mystery demands nothing but our very presence, nothing but that we show up, recognizing where ego has become a fortress, acknowledging the answers we’re so attached to, the unknown simultaneously a source of fear and relief. It is mastery that enslaves us, for there is no there there – you just keep striving, trying harder, working towards, setting more goals, never really stopping to take off your shoes and stand on the holy ground of being exactly as you are, where you are, with whatever questions or answers might be flying about.

**

Passover begins tonight. Oy, how the Jewish holidays are still so fraught for me, such a mish-mash of connection and rejection. And I’m done. I’m just done. Not done finding my way, but done with the struggle. I went back yesterday and re-read an article I linked to this time last year. I appreciated its call to discover our own meaning in the holiday and its symbols, and have decided to give myself permission to experience the holiday in my own way, without the worrying about _____ and ______ and _____ (what goes in these blanks doesn’t matter one bit).

What am I enslaved to? Mastery, maybe, or at least the pursuit thereof. What can I give up, let go of, clear out of my mind/heart/house/life? The need to know. The unwinnable attempts to control, consciously or not, everything and everyone. The habit of being SO overwhelmed, SO busy, SO many moving parts. The attachment to drama, to story.

What will be my nourishment in this time, my simple source of sustenance, my matzo? Stillness comes. Not trying to change my thoughts, but simply letting them happen without having to be so invested in them, what they mean, where they’re from, where they lead. Just let them be, the voice says. The voice of the Universe, that ultimate source of mystery and comfort. Let them be and be still. And then you will be free.

I want to wrap this up neatly, something about the dance, about Shiva and Miriam and the women, the Red Sea parting, about making our way to freedom individually and collectively. But that’s not what this is, a sermon or a package. It is a practice, a waking up, and opening of eyes, an offering. The answers change from year to year, but the questions remain, and our task is to ask them. The questions are gateways.

**

May this season liberate you from whatever personal Egypt (Mitzrayim in Hebrew means “the narrow place”) enslaves you. May this season bring us all to freedom, to greater seeing. Now let’s take off our shoes and dance together on this holy ground.

Don’t Burn Out or Numb Out: On Pacing Myself for Long-Haul Resistance

I’m having a moment of feeling so sad. Just so sad.

I’m watching live video from Standing Rock. Reading about the revocation of transgender rights, such as they were extended by the Obama administration. An “approach” to gun violence in Chicago so racist it made my head spin. And so much more. I have been trying to be intentional about staying focused on community and connection, truth-telling and self-care, all as the basis for long-term resisting. But I worry about my own blind spots and will keep coming back, knowing that I don’t know what I don’t know but determined to keep peeling back the layers so as not to be a walking part of the systems that got us here in the first place.

I know that’s what we’re up against — the long-term part. Sometimes I seriously doubt that we’ll ever “recover” from this moment in American and world history. We were already so broken, so much unfaced, unacknowledged, unhealed, that this feels like a chasm in the earth that will just grow wider and wider, with more and more people falling into it. The ones who will fall in fastest — we all know who these groups are. Immigrants. Muslims. People of color. Poor women. LGBT folks. Jews. Groups of people that are each so diverse it’s a preposterous failure of language to even list them this way.

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table feeling sad and angry at the greed and white power sitting in the highest office of this country, while those who try to protect the water that serves 18 million Americans are being forced off of their own land. While those whose blood, sweat, and tears built everything we’re sitting on get sold down the river. While hardworking business owners and mamas and fathers and students and musicians and children and the people who change the goddamn sheets at the nice hotels where these politicians lay their unconscionable heads at night fear for their safety, their homes, their livelihoods, their families, and their lives.

I say “their” knowing full well that any idea that my world is more secure is an illusion, one I refuse to get lulled into believing, though must also confront everyday as directly as possible if I’m going to be of any use to the collective. So tonight, my friends, I’m just feeling all the feelings. I have no actions to put forth or suggestions to make or knowledge about how to deal with this. I know there are a zillion resources and I’m plugging into ones I feel like I can commit to, rather than flitting around, both in real life and virtually — in the forms of giving small amounts of money (believing everything counts), time (believing everything counts), and learning (my own, because lord knows I have so fucking much to learn and unlearn).

The question of “is it enough” isn’t one I spend time worrying about; we each have to pace ourselves in order to neither burn out nor numb out. It’s no accident that Mani and I are boot-camping a new schedule starting this week; I’m already seeing just a few days in just how much I need this structure in order to take better physical care of myself, and that my work — both in the sense of livelihood and providing for my family as the sole earner right now, and in the sense of contributing to the Resistance in meaningful ways — all hinge on this.

Sleep, water, food, friends, moving the body, time to write. All of this needs to be tended to every single day — something I have typically sucked at for a long time. I’m not saying that as self-abuse; it’s just true, and even though it’s often hard, saying what’s true and acting accordingly really is the path to freedom. My freedom. Your freedom. My sisters. My brothers. I hurt for us. And I’m not giving up. I will never, ever give up.

No matter what else, find people you can share with. Find spaces where you feel safe to come and just be — where you know you can show up as you are and be met and supported. We have to keep being here for each other. This so-called government wants us to implode. To be scattered in so many directions we lose steam. Please keep reaching out, writing, and showing up in whatever ways makes sense for your life.  And maybe even in some ways that disrupt your life, too.

How and what are you doing when it comes to finding your footing here? All I know for sure is that there is a lot of stumbling, and that we are truly stronger together.

* * *

If We Divide, We Don’t Conquer by Carmen Rios :: Read
White Guilt is Actually White Narcissism by Emma Lindsay :: Read
I Am Not Your Negro :: GO SEE THIS FILM

Freedom Comes with Responsibility

Image from the Google homepage, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Is this not what we teach our kids?
A kid fussing about washing dishes.
A mom tells her that a different mom
would shut that fussing down
and hand over a mop to do the floors next.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Roll call.
Raise you hand and be counted.
Does every voice matter? Yes.
And you know when this really starts
to become apparent?
When we stop using ours.
When we resign ourselves to powerlessness.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not threats or secrecy.
Not preaching to the choir
or sneaking out out the side door
of integrity when you don’t know
the next right thing.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Check yourself.
Hiding behind white or straight or cis is privilege.
It it a cowardly and self-serving
perpetuation of oppression.
But what about when safety comes into play —
is safety a privilege, too?

Freedom comes with responsibility.
I will not sit idly by.
My health insurance is not more important than your health insurance.
My kids’ education is not more important than your kids’ education.
My safety is not more important than your safety.
My spirit is not more sacred than your spirit.
My being is not more important than your being.
As long as “my” comes before “yours”
I will be tethered to distortions of freedom
by a rope that doubles as a noose.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Find your fight.
Comfort in community is not the same as comfort in complacency.
Pick one thing if you have to and be a beacon.
If your own light has been so dulled
that your sight is compromised, spend time each day
with the soft cloth of clear seeing. Take care of your own eyes.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not for the faint of heart.
Take time today and every day to honor those who gave their lives for this,
for this freedom to speak, to resist, to insist, to denounce, to stand up, to be seen.
Think about the thousands, millions who died, whose names are gone,
whose faces have been passed down through generations,
who had no choice in the arrival,
who did not come to this land by choice,
who did not come to this land for opportunity,
for did not come to this land as equals or heirs.
Think of those who were displaced and dismantled
whose land was stolen and bloodied and renamed.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
My life is bound up with your life.
My heart is bound up with your heart.
My “my” is tethered to your “yours.”
I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s safe haven.
You are your father’s son and your mother’s daughter.
Overthrow legacies of complicity and shine a light on injustice.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
For this is love.
This is our mighty task.
And we are living inside of history as it unfolds around us,
not as puppets or actors but as humans infused with more ability than we can ever know.
Do what it takes today and all the days to tap it.
To speak from that stream and to drink from that well
and to hold out your cupped hands
that another might splash cold water on her face.

We’ve got to keep waking each other up.
Freedom comes with responsibility.

The Roar Sessions: Adina Giannelli

Adina_BarForgoing the Law and Finding Freedom
by Adina Giannelli

When I enrolled in law school, against my better judgment and the advice of wise and thoughtful guides, I had no idea what I was in for. Or maybe I did.

A year before, as I gathered references from my favorite teachers, all writers, memoirists, and literature professors, they blanched.

You should apply to MFA programs, Adina, my erstwhile mentor Maddy counseled over her reading glasses. I see what you’re doing. I don’t think this is the thing.

We chatted about the utility of an MFA and whether I had it in me to handle the particulars of a writing life, the cycle of rejection and defeat, the challenges, economic and otherwise.

Another mentor, an ebullient vildechaye, was more direct in her admonishment.

This is a MAJOR mistake! I’ll write you a reference, I can’t NOT, but you really shouldn’t do it.

When I reminded her that she, too, had gone to law school, she shook her head.

I went to law school because I had writer’s block, Adina! I had to go to therapy. Every. Single. Day! You should study litature, she said, her pronunciation a throwback to a midcentury Jewish American vernacular.

I never studied literature—I mean, except for your classes, I conceded. The truth, which I couldn’t access at the time, was simple. I was afraid.

You are meant to be in a PhD program in litature, Adina—my G-d! she said, melodramatically clutching at the chai around her neck, holding onto that small goatlike Hebrew letter for life.

*

A person with more self-awareness and a stronger backbone and less fear than I had at 19 or 23 or 25 would have not gone to law school at all. A slightly less witless person might have done with my friend Samantha did, which was enroll, show up, and quit on day one. But law school was respectable, and it was something to do, and I thought I could fight my better judgment and shrug off whatever shred of self-knowledge I harbored. I always did what I’d always been told, in educational contexts, until I couldn’t, and this was very much a square peg/round hole situation, but I labored through.

In my last year of law school, though, against all reason, I fell inexplicably pregnant, and organized myself accordingly. I was scheduled to finish my studies in May; the baby was due in June; I’d take the bar in July.

Maybe you should think about rescheduling the bar exam, my midwife urged.

The bar will be there next year, my adored law school professor Lauren promised.

After some measure of reflection I decided that they were right.

The bar exam would be there the following year—of course.

The baby, however, would not.

*

Talya was born inexplicably small, precipitously tiny, her size a mystery and a riddle and an augury. Before I knew that, before I knew that this girl would be born at four pounds and chronically unsettled, I knew I could not leave a newborn to sit for a two-day examination I never really cared about. So with the clarity and wisdom and berth of a woman nearly nine months pregnant—and pathologically ambivalent about the practice of law, besides—I decided to postpone the test. We would all carry on as scheduled, I with the baby, and the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners might miss my $815, but the bar would go on.

True to expectation, the bar exam rolled along as scheduled. But the day my law school colleagues sat for the bar exam was the day my firstborn child died.

I was never the sort of person who relied on signs but if ever there was a message from the universe, this was a sure one: I should not be a lawyer.

And so for years I carried on accordingly. I coped, or didn’t. I tried, and didn’t. In some respects, I thrived, and in most measures, I functioned, but I was more than a little unmoored. Through it all, the loss resounded. I felt many things and I felt almost nothing, but mostly I felt like a strange sort of mourning beach, the grief washing back and forth over me like a tide.

On the professional front, the lawyering front, I hedged. I learned, through various internships and clerkships in and after law school, that I was highly effective at executing the responsibilities associated with legal work, but not temperamentally suited to the practice of law. I thrive under pressure, and love it when the stakes are high.

A close friend and amateur astrologer once told me that I was well suited to four and only four occupational categories: teacher, writer, therapist, and deputy. You are strongest when second in command, she promised. You give excellent advice, but always think that more information is coming, and don’t want to be the one charged with the final decision. I put little stock in astrology, but clung to this comment as a dictate. Even at the bottom of an organizational hierarchy, a lawyer is never second-in-command. The idea of being responsible for someone’s legal outcomes left me sleepless and stressed out beyond measure.

I recognized late what I hadn’t ever been brave enough to name: I was curious about the law, I loved studying the law and excelled at research and administration and teaching undergraduate students about the law, but I hadn’t ever wanted to be a lawyer. I went to law school because it was something to do, because my mind had intellectual questions that could not be answered in a seminar or a laboratory or a workshop, and I thought I wasn’t made for those places, either. I went to law school because after my mentors said don’t I earned a full scholarship and before that a long line of people who didn’t really know me or lawyering told me I should be a lawyer. After all, I was good at reading and good at reasoning and good at arguing, the imagined big three of a lawyer’s life. But it wasn’t what I wanted. It was someone else’s dream, and I was good, too, at other people’s dreams.

Still, even at the point of peak engagement in the legal world, I never intended to practice, and so completing the bar was not a test of my legal knowledge or an opportunity to prove my acumen. You worked so hard, my grandmother chided me, each time the bar exam came up. How hard I worked is an open question, but the fact is, I already earned the degree. I didn’t need to take the bar to validate the many hours of effort and time that went into law school.

Eventually, though, I realized: I did need to take the bar. But for me, the exam was a different sort of trial. The process was unceremonious; the failure, practically preordained.

Now, I wouldn’t have minded if I passed, however unlikely that outcome. It was clear to me that passage was nearly impossible, given that I’d been out of law school for six years and had barely cracked open my study materials. I’m not proud of that, either, but it’s real. I lacked inclination; I lacked time. In the months leading up to the bar exam, I was running an organization; single parenting a small child; teaching three undergraduate courses; pretending to be a full-time graduate student, and dealing with the residual trauma of the recent and horrific murder of my partner’s ex. So I was a little preoccupied. Some say that because of the symbolic and material significance of the date, the exam itself would traumatize. Probably all true. But I’m not sure I would have passed even if circumstances were different—if I’d done the requisite two months of solitary 10-12 hour days—no job, no child, no graduate school, no trauma. And I’m not sure I would have cared.

If I passed, I won, but if I failed I was equally victorious. True to my mentors’ protestations, I never fully belonged in the legal world. And the trauma of my daughter’s death compounded that feeling, heightened my sense of disjuncture and cemented the belief that I should not practice law. And so taking the bar was never about passing the bar, and it was never about validating my self-concept or measuring my sense of worth.

The bar was about being stuck someplace for five and a half years, clawing and scratching and scrounging up the wherewithal to move out and through and beyond it. And I did.

So when I looked around the room at the end of the final day, and saw people, anxious in their anticipation and fear of an adverse outcome, I was outside once more. For me, it was another experience entirely.

When I walked through that auditorium door at the close of the examination, what I felt was not fear or pride, anticipation or longing, or, even, to my great surprise, grief at the death of my long-gone daughter. The bar for me was not the start of a chapter but the closing of a book. I left that exam feeling lighter than I’d felt in a very long time. I had made it through, as surely as I’d been stuck. The victory was quiet, my roar also inaudible. There were no accolades, no job offers, no awards for leaving the law behind. And a literary path was sure to be pocked with different kinds of challenges. But I had crossed a threshold. And what I felt on the other side was an inexorable freedom.

**

Adina GiannelliAdina Giannelli is a writer and teacher whose essays have appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post. You can find her online at her www.adinagiannelli.com, and you can call her Adi.

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The Roar Sessions is a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices. Please note that the views and opinions expressed in these guest posts belong to each author own and do not necessarily reflect my own. All Roar Sessions content, including photos, belongs to the respective contributors. Read them all.