starlings--Mark Hearld

The Days of Awe: Time to Return

Image: Mark Hearld

It’s the last day of the Jewish year. This is the time of year when Jews practice what’s called t’shuvah (Hebrew: תשובה‎‎), which literally means return. It’s usually translated as repentance, but honestly that never resonates with me. The idea of returning, however — turning back towards what’s important, what’s true, even what some of us may consider sacred — this is a beautiful practice.

Take some time today to write about returning.

It may be something specific in yourself or your life that you’re ready to return to, or a more general reorientaton on your writing + life path. Whatever comes to mind, trust that. Don’t overthink it — just start and keep going and let it be a kind of meditation, knowing the words will lead you exactly in the right direction.

Surely there have been times in the past year when I fell down on my intentions, got sideswiped by the two-sided sword of self-doubt and self-importance, and otherwise distracted from what was right in front of me. I dreamed last night that I had a hurtful fight with someone I love; I wonder if it was my subconscious reminding me these the Days of Awe are for making amends, for saying, I’m sorry. For sitting fully with the fullness of our experience and honest evaluation of what needs to fall away.

I made mistakes knowingly and unknowingly. I stumbled, tripped, and got back up again. I caused pain without meaning to, and for this, too, I must hold myself accountable. And in the coming months, in the new year, I know I will be imperfect as I continue to feel my way on this path of right livelihood, of marriage and mothering, of sisterhood and friendship, and of resistance and communal responsibility.

I come here today not only with a writing prompt, but to ask your forgiveness for ways in which I have let you down, or may disappoint in the future.

If my life is a prayer, I hope it’s one that aspires to the mountaintop but loves the overgrown trail, too. I hope it’s as clear and present on the difficult terrain as the parts that are well-tended. Whether weary or energized, may I remain aware that my thoughts, words, choices, and actions all affect others, as well as to remember that I am but a speck of stardust in the unfathomable grasp of creation.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to services tonight, as I’m working in bed with what has turned into a nasty cold and I sure wouldn’t want to sit next to me at the moment. I realized yesterday that I often come down with something in September; it’s as if my body knows it’s time to slow all the way down, to nourish and take stock in ways that require a degree of stillness. Stillness feels like a luxury item in this season of my life — which is all the more reason to make room for it.

There are knots in my shoulders and knots in my heart; some will loosen easily while I may work to undo others for the rest of my life. As it’s written in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every year, every day, every moment is an opportunity to return. During the Days of Awe — between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when it’s believed that the Book of Life lies open — this work is more densely concentrated.

These ten days always carry for me a quality of intense exposure. I do my best not to hide, not to mask, not to dodge and duck what’s true. Instead, to sit and say, Hineni — I am here. To take my seat in the sanctuary and reflect on what it means to live a life of authenticity, integrity, and meaning.

The birds are going particularly crazy right now; I hear them out the window behind me and see them through the windows across the room, darting in and out of the still-green branches. I am, in a very literal sense, surrounded by the song of returning. And there’s an urgency to their movements and sounds, starlings like jet-black barometers of the changing season, as if they, too, are congregating.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, in the spirit of the holiday that begins tonight at sundown: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. May your days be filled with sweetness, health, and creative juices. May justice prevail and may we dismantle oppressive systems that rely on greed, ignorance, racism, and a disdain for the poorest among us. May we have the wisdom to turn inward to face our own limitations rather than lashing out in accusation or judgment. May we be fierce in our self-love as a force for loving others, and may we place our respect for life, for the planet, and for humanity above our own material wants and desires. May we be part of repairing what’s rent and healing what’s broken.

L’shana tova. 

starlings--Mark Hearld

9/11, My Biological Clock, and Healing a Broken World

Just a few weeks before September 11, 2001,

I’d come home from an evening class, put my arms around my then-husband’s waist — we’ll call him Bryce — and said: “It’s time.” I meant time to start trying to conceive our first child. We’d been married just shy of two years, I was 27 and he was 35, and my clock was definitely starting to tick.

We had moved to Burlington, Vermont about a year and a half earlier and bought an adorable duplex downtown, back when housing in the Champlain Valley was still reasonably affordable on two modest full-time incomes. And while he had some fears about becoming a father, we knew from early in our relationship we wanted a family. I was the director of a Jewish student group at the University of Vermont, and he was newly self-employed, doing work related to renewable energy. The Master of Fine Arts degrees we’d each earned in creative writing sat untouched, his rolled up and mine framed, both collecting dust as we went out the business of figuring out how to support ourselves and make a life.

That day in late August as I walked down Maple Street from the tiny yoga studio on South Union, the light on Lake Champlain looked not unlike the way I’d imagined the light people describe who’ve after near-death experiences. It didn’t just reflect on the water; it seemed to be the water itself, consuming, warm, and white. I heard a voice, the inaudible kind that’s hard to explain to other people: “I will be your teacher,” it said. And I knew right away what, if not who, it was: The child who was ready to be ours.

Students returned for the fall semester and my work at UVM kicked back up into high gear. As the Hillel director, a significant part of my job was to organize high holiday services on campus. We borrowed a Torah from a local synagogue and I made Xerox copies of services into welcoming booklets.

At 27, I was barely a decade older at most than the students I was leading, but I took my role as a leader and mentor seriously and wanted to create a spiritual and meaningful container for us to come together during this sacred time of year. I’d even bought a special outfit for the High Holidays: A silky tank and peach-colored skirt, run through with deep orange stitchwork and tiny mirror-like beads. Wearing it, I felt professional. Like a real grown-up. Like what I imagined a woman and a wife and someone ready to become a mother. must feel like.

On the morning of September 11, I drove to Cherry Street to pick up my newly pressed outfit. The sky was a piercing blue, the kind that makes you want to sing out loud, burst into tears, and talk to strangers on the street — all at the same time. I parked at a meter, crossed the street, and jingled the door as I entered the small dry cleaner’s. A woman behind the counter and a customer were talking and looking up at the small TV screen hanging in the corner of the room. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Something about a plane crash in New York,” one of them said. I felt a wave of concern, though neither of them seemed particularly worried. I collected my clothes, paid, and rushed to turn on the car radio. I started to realize that this was something. Something big.

I sped home and yelled for Bryce to turn on the TV. The previous owners had never disconnected their cable, a fact that had allowed us to enjoy West Wing. ER, and Friends each week on their respective nights. We sat down on the couch, the first “real” piece of furniture we’d bought together. One of the Twin Towers was on fire. I burst into tears, trying to get a handle on what was happening. As we watched, mouths agape, a plane flew directly into the second tower.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” I repeated, the shock of what we were witnessing coursing through my veins. I felt convinced I knew hundreds of people at the scene even though it would turn out just a few people I knew were downtown that day. My roots as a New York Jew were three generations deep; I’d gone to college uptown but ventured below 14th Street often for a homecooked meal at an aunt and uncle’s loft in Tribeca. I had taken many walks to Battery Park with my aunt Nancy, who had died in a 1998 plane crash. I remember being grateful that she wasn’t there, to witness what was now happening.

The terror of that morning together with my position as a campus leader gave me a sense of purpose; after making shocked calls to a handful of close friends and family members, I reached out to some students and put out the call that the Hillel office would be open that evening for anyone who wanted to come be in each other’s company. There was no comfort to give, but being together felt urgent, like something to cling to.  Rosh Hashanah began just five days later, and Yom Kippur ten days after that. Reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer, described as “a religious poem that is meant to strike fear in us,” took on an extraordinary and chilling depth of meaning that year.

A few weeks later, Bryce and I marked our second anniversary at a resort in Stowe. A colleague of his had won a free night and for some reason offered it to us. Not ones to splurge, we took advantage of the opportunity to do something special. I was still deeply shaken by the events of September 11 — and to say I was still feeling ready to make a baby would be an understatement. We had a long talk about the kind of world we’d be bringing a new life into: An already over-populated world, groaning under the weight of its inhabitants, suffering from climate change, and apparently teeming with people who wanted to kill us.

On the drive back to Burlington — October 7 — I turned on the radio and heard that we had just bombed Afghanistan. We were at war.  The tears kept coming, life went on, and I was undeterred in my need to start a family. Though it took a few more months, we conceived the person who would become our daughter sometime around my 28th birthday, in January of 2002. I knew it wasn’t a good time in the world to have a child, but I also knew that it never would be. My logic wasn’t logic at all; it was intuition, trust, and all kinds of things that fly in the face of reason.

A year after that night in the kitchen and that horrific nightmare of a September day, I was in my third trimester and “all belly” as my OB-Gyn friend and unofficial doctor affectionately said. The extra 30 pounds showed up on my petite frame in a perfectly spherical shape — a basketball that everyone insisted meant I was carrying a boy. I was lucky in that I’d had a relatively easy and altogether healthy pregnancy, and now that our baby’s October 8 due date was approaching, the realness that a new human would be coming to live in our house was beginning to really sink in.

My nesting impulse was off the hook, manifested in immaculate cupboards, organized bookshelves, and happy houseplants, not to mention the glider I’d received from the grandparents that sat by the front window. I imagined myself spending hours there nursing, and felt my pulse quicken. I couldn’t wait to meet this person I’d sung and written to for nearly nine months. No matter what kind of world we lived in, I believed with all my heart that it would be better with them in it.

Aviva Lou was born on October 10, 2002, just over a year after that terrifying September day. We brought her to rallies and marches against climate change and racial injustice, but she wasn’t much interested in politics or the environment, preferring as she grew and showed us who she was to sing her heart out, read books, and write stories. But something happened while we were busy caring, changing, and witnessing so many more global and national tragedies: It was as if she’d been soaking everything in all that time, and suddenly she began to find her own voice, her own passion, her own devotion to tikkun olam — repairing the world.

Very little is the same as it was 16 years ago. A second child, Pearl, joined us in 2006. My marriage to Bryce ended was I was 36; four years later, I married the woman of my dreams. The world — and our country’s role in its swift deterioration — has continued to stun, anger, and awaken us on a daily basis.

The privilege of just “getting on with life” is no longer an option and really never should’ve been. And these kids — these babies who were then barely here and are now in high school — they’ve inherited an unbearable burden that they must transform into opportunity: To live in a time when remembering days like 9/11 is critical, but no more so than looking at the world each and every day as a place in desperate need of truth, beauty, and justice.

starlings--Mark Hearld

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Take Off Your Shoes: Rachel Naomi Remen and Passover Blessings

Originally published on April 8, 2009.
** 

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.