Being Spiritually Equipped (Without the Bypassing)

August always brings such a pronounced shift. In Jewish tradition, it's when the month of Elul begins, the month that leads us up to the Days of Awe or High Holy Days that encompass Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Elul is a month when we begin the journey inward, preparing ourselves for the opening of the Book of Life, a reckoning with who we've been in the past year, and who we aspire to be in the year to come. Elul is a kind of spiritual runway, just as the Days of Awe themselves are a liminal space between old and new, between beginning and ending, between what happened and something like resolution, or forgiveness.

I read a quote a few days ago that has been weaving its way around my heart and through my thoughts. It feels related to this moment of things shifting.


If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present... gratefully.
— Maya Angelou


August. The days are growing noticeably shorter already; in my mind's eye, it's 7:00pm on the big round clock of the year. (Do you also have a shape of the year? For me, it's a Ferris Wheel. I even wrote a prompt about it once.) School starts back up in a few weeks; students will return to Amherst, filling the bars at night and the aisles of Target as they shop for dorm decorations. Pearl begins 8th grade, Aviva is going into her second-to-last year of community college (she ditched high school, a highly recommended strategy!).

A year from now, we will be in the hottest part of the campaign season, and the stakes get higher by the day for people of color, for women, for queer folks, for immigrants and refugees, for Jews and for Muslims, for people living at or below the poverty line struggling to get by, for those without health insurance, and the list goes on.

August. Preparing. Reckoning is coming. Getting clear with myself and those in my world. Surveying the last year, not with self-flagellation but with clear seeing eyes and an open heart.

Yesterday, I rushed back to my office after a late lunch at home, in order to be on time for a webinar I'd signed up for. I was so perplexed. It was right there in my calendar: 2:00pm EST, "Trust Black Women." I checked my email-- nothing, no links. So I sent a message to a couple of people I knew had also signed up, hoping they'd know something I didn't. Here's what they knew: The webinar was not yesterday, but next Tuesday. I was a week early.

There was a plus side to my mistake. I wound up having a long chat with a wonderful poet and writer, whose work I deeply respect. At one point, she asked me if I had thought about writing something about tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world. I noticed my immediate internal response was, "Who, me?" But the seed is there, planted in me. And her question reminded me to reach into my own tradition for guidance, especially at a time when I feel in some ways so spiritually challenged.

Why challenged? I have been really struggling with something lately: My own reactivity. Like when someone has known me for years and still misspells my name. Mind you, if I don't correct them, that's really on me to speak up, but I still get petty about it. Or how yesterday, at an event, someone stepped on my toe -- I was wearing open-toed sandals, and it really hurt. I didn't say anything and the space was so crowded that I'm not actually sure they even realized they'd done it. Or this morning, at the tail end of my run, when I was about to cross the street and a car came rolling right through the stop sign. The driver caught my eye and realized she hadn't seen me; she waved apologetically.

And suddenly, I woke up. I woke up to how I was focusing on all of these moments, making them about me. I woke up to how this reactivity was obviously covering something deeper, something other. It was not about the name, the feet, the stop sign. What was it about, then?

Photo: Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Photo: Nick Fewings via Unsplash

And the phrase that came to me was this: "spiritually equipped." As in, what is my spiritual equipment to move through these days, these times? What is the balance of boundaries and taking sides and somehow also staying open, soft, and loving? Who am I when I begin to react, even, to those who are proposing kindness as a way forward?

I can get so edgy, so on alert for spiritual bypassing, that it is eroding my own strong spiritual connection and basis for living. That's when I know it's time to pause, to reset, to step into the energy of Elul and revisit who I am in this world.

I am listening to piano music as I write. I can hear voices below; there are several benches outside of my office, and this tends to be a bit of gathering place for folks. Suddenly I feel a rush of emotion. Elie Wiesel's famous words float into my thoughts: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

I so want to weave all of this together -- the turn inward of Elul, the sadness of how much destruction is occurring on our watch, the belief that none of us alone can fix it yet each of us must do our part, and the quiet that comes with this, with the writing, the making space for laying out these threads. I release myself from the pressure to wrap it all up in a neat little bow. I ask myself, what is my spiritual equipment? What is spirituality in these times, grounded in reality, not closing its eyes or heart while also clear about what is unacceptable?

Marianne Williamson-style spirituality is a big no, and here's why. It is not enough to say we create our own realities, not when so many are dying because of realities they did not create. It is not enough to say we are all one, when clearly our policies do not reflect anything like equality.

With a lump in my throat, I turn back to Judaism for help. And I remember, mine is a tradition of wrestling with God, of asking questions upon questions, of bearing collective responsibility for how we live. It is not mine or yours alone to heal the world, nor are we free to give up on the work. This is very, very humbling. It shines a flood light on ego, ego that would say it's all about me, my hurts, my needs, my name, my feet, my way. Ego that would also say, I'm too small too make a difference.

When I see where ego is at work, something opens up. Something bigger, something older, something wider and wiser. It invites me not to reinvent the wheel but to take my seat at a very long, very old table. It invites you to sit down, too. It invites us to meet each other's eyes. To make room for the tears to fall. To clearly state, you are welcome here -- and this welcome comes with responsibility.

That responsibility is to recognize and own my shortcomings. It is to reach for the best version of myself in a spacious, compassionate way. It is to work on my reactivity, so that I can listen more fully rather than jumping in with my agenda. It is to breathe. It is to respond. It is to notice -- am I being silent because I have centered myself enough, or am I being silent because I'm afraid what I have to share won't be enough? I've written in the past about there being different kinds of silence, something I remind myself of now.

I am so filled with love, it is almost too much sometimes. And yet I am touchy about people who are so quick to go to "love" as in "love is the answer" and "love is all we need." We do need love. We do need kindness. We need these so desperately, so beautifully. And we need them to be grounded in what is, not what we wish for. We have to envision a better world, but we cannot simply visualize our way out of this mess.

And so maybe I'm writing my way towards something useful. Not an answer, for surely there are few answers to be found, but at least a sense of direction. Love, yes. Kindness, yes. Compassion, God yes. And, that these can and must have strong roots and a willingness to be fierce, to be unwavering. To walk a path that is kind, loving, and compassionate AND unwavering in its commitment to tikkun olam. Maybe spiritual bypassing is when the former are put forward without the latter. We need both. I need both.

The Hebrew month of Elul is still a few weeks off; it begins on August 30. And so this must be the ground of preparing. What will we harvest this fall? What will go back to the earth? Who will we be, as the seasons turn again inward and the world continues to turn and burn and cry out for our help?

We will have to be the ones we've been waiting for. This quote has been attributed to June Jordan, Alice Walker, Barack Obama, and the Hopi Tribe. Regardless of who said it first, it speaks directly to my heart today. We are the ones. We cannot wait. The time is now. Always now.

I will close this with a deep bow to you. I was also thinking this morning about how a newsletter or a blog post might seem kind of impersonal. After all, it is going out to many people, not just one. And yet, for me, it is so personal. So intimate. Every single time I hit "send," I feel a wave of vulnerability. Will these words speak to you? Am I making sense? Am I taking up too much room? Then I remember that whole part about ego, and I think of Leonard Cohen's lines, "Forget your perfect offering."

We are never going to be perfect about any of this. What we can be is real. It's all a process.

I hope you’ll have a look at the fall line-up of writing groups and retreats. All of these spaces are for you, especially if you are also more interested in wrestling than in getting the right answer, if writing is how you find your way, if you crave spaces where you get to show up and not have anything figured out first.

It is such a privilege to get to write, to get to be in community with you, to be in this world, broken and hurting as it is. Thank you for being there.