Originally published on April 8, 2009.
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.