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On Boundaries, Shabbat, and Not Neglecting the Soul

The soul, like the mat, never asks where the hell have you been? It just says, welcome home.

Shabbat saves my life. This is only slightly an exaggeration. I want to try to tell you why.

Let me start with a couple of rabbis (always a good idea).

In union with the divine we find release from the pain of the futile cycle of searching and disappointment. Shabbat is our refuge of acceptance, our shelter from cravings and strivings. ~ Sheila Peltz Weinberg

… our weekly struggle in the world of achievement and bustle is now at an end. We have repeated the struggles of creation and now we too are called upon to achieve the great inner quiet which is the secret of true rest. ~ Art Green

So we have been trying to go to Friday night services at our wonderful synagogue more regularly. Last night, it was so so cold out — unseasonably so for November. We went out into the dark at 6:00pm and when we arrived at the synagogue, at first we thought maybe services had been cancelled. The building was dark. The sanctuary was locked. Then we realized our mistake: Services were in the smaller space, attached to the social hall. There weren’t many people there, though more trickled in over the next 10 or so minutes.

Like many weeks, it had been a long one. I notice my impulse to qualify this, to say “mostly good stuff.” And the truth is, there was plenty of good. There were two new writing groups as well as three continuing ones, with check-ins and freewrites and stories and poems that reminded me of the magic and power of writing down and hearing each other’s stories. As one new-to-me writer remarked: “I am amazed by how the simplest of prompts and the smallest of moments can have such an enormous impact!”

My kids have both been growing in beautiful and brave ways, and so much of my purpose emanates from my role as their mama. Doing good in the world, knowing this happens from the inside out and isn’t about bravado or badges of honor but about integrity and presence and fierce protection when necessary and letting them find their own way, not influencing that beyond what is impossible to avoid completely, and let them be who they are.

Learning once again that not everyone will a) like me, b) get me, or c) be worth the time. I tend towards forgiving others and being hard on myself, and I’m seeing in profound ways that forgiving myself doesn’t mean the opposite — being hard on others — but it very well might translate into a boundary I didn’t used to know I could draw or didn’t have the confidence to keep. It feels good, to know who gets to be on the inside with me. It feels good to say here, I am entrusting you with something sacred. Or, in other cases, this sanctuary is locked.

It feels good to learn how to recognize my own voice in my head and heart and not second-guess its knowing.

Needless to say, the past week entailed a LOT of output on many levels, and by last night, I was tuckered out. Within moments of the first melody, I felt the tears wanting out. By the beginning of the second song, they were sliding down my cheeks and chin onto my neck. I closed my eyes and felt the relief of returning to myself, to my soul. I knew it had been there waiting, needing to be touched in a way that is physical, though I know logically that doesn’t make sense. But that is how it felt, like a greeting, like a landing, like a communing.

I left the room to go to the bathroom, to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. In the mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman with two dark braids and an oversized sweater. Her face was creased, like she must enjoy the sun or perhaps was once a smoker. Her eyes looked small and slightly red-rimmed from crying. I gazed at her and she looked back at me. I saw something like soul or kindness there in her eyes. I saw a mother who would go the lengths of the earth for her kids. I saw a wife who had found herself and said yes to what was required of her in order to be that person, and then had found love in a way that she swore felt like a reward, even though she didn’t believe karma works quite that neatly. She looked like someone who felt things deeply. She looked tired, yes, and also real, solid. I liked her. I gave her a tiny squint, like a signal that I saw her and we were ok, and then went back to my seat.

Whatever stresses and tension I’d brought with me into that building did not come home with me. I woke this morning to soft, warm skin that feels like home, like roots. We drank coffee in bed and lingered and talked about how love will wither if you don’t work on relationship, but when you are really in, when you choose this person, this partner, this life again and again, even though it can be work, the love is easy. The love is effortless. It thrives when we are doing our part, showing up, bringing our ideas and our silliness and our sorrows and our fears and our dorkiness and our dreams to the table. What a miracle.

Divine love is unconditional. It is available to every one of us when we fashion our lives into channels to receive and share it. ~ Art Green

What I think is important to add or emphasize is that what this fashioning looks like is so personal. Anyone who tells you they know the right way to do it or it must be done a certain way, that only certain channels contain divine love — whatever such a thing means for you — run the other way. Close the door. Block the account. Do whatever you have to do to preserve yourself. Nobody has the right to tell you what your life must be in order to be a channel for divine love.

Nobody gets to declare they know a better path for you or your children, or that you haven’t done your research or given major decisions enough thought. This is not a permission slip to act irresponsibly; it is a mirror for the fact that you are capable, thorough, intelligent, ethical, and committed not only to doing the work life asks you to do but recognizing that there will always be that which you do not and cannot see.

Being steady is not hubris, arrogance, or narcissism. In fact, it’s what makes it possible to be open to all you do not know. It’s evidence that you are a grown woman whose devotion to truth and wellbeing runs deeper than roots you watered out of obligation or fear.

It is practicing standing in your own two footprints, the only ones in the world that are perfectly your size, and knowing how to stay soft and strong at the same time. It is admitting when you don’t know what to do next. It is acknowledging that you are not the only player here, not the only voice, while not abdicating your own intuition, observations, and wisdom.

All of this relies on an ingredient both ever-present and easily neglected: The soul.

This morning in the shower, after our delicious few hours of slow waking and before the yoga class where I planned to meet my middle sister, I called to Mani, “My soul was kind of back-burnered all week. I so needed this day to tend to it.” I knew she’d know what I meant (she did).

Yoga — my first class since I can’t even remember — was a perfect continuation of this intentional touching into soul. Even though I ran and swam throughout the summer and walk an average of 2-3 miles most days just going around, I haven’t had a regular movement practice in way too long. My body soaked up the asanas like an unwatered plant, and I sank into the floor during savasana, a hint of a headache around my temples that alerted me to the need to eat.  I picked up an egg & cheese sandwich at the cafe downstairs, while my sister got a chai. We walked to the parking lot, chatted for a few minutes, and hugged goodbye. It was cold and sunny and felt more like January than November, but my body was warm from class and cozy in a sweater, coat, leggings, and warm hat.

Without this one day a week of listening to the body, not trying to keep up with anything, to responding to anyone unless I simply want to, and connecting with myself, I wonder if old patterns of discontent, restlessness, and martyrdom would flare up more than they do these days.

In his classic book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the soothing nature of Shabbat:

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.

It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. 

That’s exactly it. Taking these 24 or so hours “off” is really a chance to get quiet, to go inward, to look in the mirror, to turn away from the output and towards what is closest. The circles of what’s sacred to me are all beautiful, and when I disregard my soul in the busy mix and the caring for and focusing on others, something gets lost.

It was such a relief in the last 25 hours, to realize that my soul is here and fully intact and so very receptive to the invitation to surface. I love her. I love this life.

 * * *

The is the song that undoes me and makes me whole again; it’s from the fourth verse of Yedid Nefesh, a collection of psalms typically sung on Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Higali na ofrus havivi alay et sukkat shelomecha
הִגָלֵה נָא וּפְרשׂ, חָבִיב עָלַי אֶת סֻכַת שְלומָךְ
Please, my Beloved, reveal Yourself and spread upon me your canopy of peace

Diego-Catto-B+W

The Art of Taking Rest

Photo: Ismael Nieto
Photo: Ismael Nieto

1. Shabbat (It Can Wait)

It starts Friday. By about 3:00pm, I feel it coming. The kids have headed to their dad’s. The internet grows relatively quiet. Writing in my groups slows down as people wrap up the work week. I come into the bedroom and tell Mani I’m debating between a nap and errands. She takes one look at me and tells me the answer without saying a word.

Two hours later, I get up and post on Facebook:

Unless it’s burning or bleeding, it can wait. It can wait a minute. An hour. A full 24 hours. The work will be better for having rested, the connections deeper, the mind sharper, the ideas brighter, and the heart clearer.

It sounds nice. But this does not come easily to me, this letting things wait. There’s some fear underlying it, a shadow side to my intention. As a provider for my family, I could easily work seven days a week, taking breaks of course, but really, sitting down at my computer first thing in the morning and working until late each night is not uncommon ’round these parts.

Thus: Shabbat. A day of rest. Truly a whole day. Not just a 20-minute run or afternoon nap with my love. Not just squeezing in a swim or watching Kids Cupcake Wars at bedtime, but taking an entire night and day off from being actively engaged with the world beyond the walls of my home and whatever outside I might choose to step into.

Truth is, this happens maybe once, twice a month. And it doesn’t happen to me. I have to make it a priority like my house was on fire and rest is the only thing that will put out the flames and salvage the treasures inside.

If I inherited my father’s love of language, I also have a maternal gene for movement. My mother is the hummingbird: Quick, light, always in motion. It’s funny; as I write I’m thinking how much more I identify with a sloth than a fast-moving little bird! But that very sluggishness is the counterpart to my capacity to fit a lot in to the waking hours — sometimes too much.

Returning, again and again, to balance — this is my practice. And without going “dark,” sometimes I fear my light will go out for good.

Balancing out the fear is faith, which includes letting go of ego. Ego says: It is all up to you! Faith reminds me: Not only won’t things fall apart without my constant presence, but really, the world depends much, much less on me than I sometimes fall for believing. If my work were so fragile that it depended on me being swiftly responsive to every single ping and poke and tag and comment and inquiry, we’d be in big trouble.

And so. I step back. Shabbat Shalom. 

2. From Sundown to Sundown (A Whole Lot of Nothing)

Saturday morning, the sun still rises. Hallelujah.

We spend the day hanging out together doing a whole lot of nothing. Wake up around 10:00am. Drink coffee in bed. Read some New York Times articles out loud to Mani. Resist the urge to share several things on Facebook.

At some point after lunch, we get our sexy on, then nap without my setting an alarm as I do during the work week.

After I get up, it’s time for a late-afternoon swim at Puffer’s, gliding through the spring-fed water, feeling strong and grateful. Then I eat a burrito in town before coming home to make dinner for Mani. (We still don’t eat together, due to her mast cell disease, though we are determined that this will change.)

The beauty of a day of real rest is that you don’t necessarily remember how you spent it. You just remember that it was… wait for it… restful.

Such a relief. Such a necessity. Such a reset. “I’m going to have to write about this,” I tell Mani. She laughs. “I knew you were going to say that.” It’s nice to be known.

3. Havdalah (A Sweet Week)

For those of you who aren’t Jewish, or who (like I was for the first half of my life, Jewish without knowing anything about Judaism), at the end of Shabbat there is a beautiful ceremony called havdalah, which means “separation.”

Separation is a big thing for Jews. It’s how we know what’s what. What’s holy and what’s mundane; what’s darkness and what’s light; what’s right and what’s unjust. Shabbat, the day of rest, sits apart from the other six days. The busy ones. The ones that blur by, with everyday demands, schedules, things to make and do.

Shabbat is when we sit back and see and feel and, in the language of yoga and savasana, “receive the benefits of our practice.” I’ve never heard a rabbi compare Shabbat to savasana, actually, but it’s often what comes to mind for me as an obvious parallel. We practice, stretch, sweat it out (literally or figuratively), show up, struggle, learn, listen, work, respond, and take care of all the kinds of business, all week long.

In the documentary we watched Friday night, I Am Not Your Guru, Tony Robbins talks about how many people think of life as happening TO us and not FOR us. That shift is a game-changer, and no matter your station or situation in life, I believe we all have the ability and right to make that decision.

But without some rest, without time to integrate so much activity and reaction and keeping up, I’m a goner. I forget what it’s even like to FEEL. I lose touch with priorities; all of life, work, and love become one flat landscape with no distinguishing features.

Last night — as the last of the yellow, post-thunderstorm light faded, I sang to Mani. “A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase. A good week, a week of peace. May gladness reign, and joy increase.” Then I wished her shavua tov, a sweet week, as is customary.

4. Sunday (I Am the Storm)

Sunday afternoon. I’ve spent the day so far writing, reading, interacting online, and doing our August budget. And that’s when it starts. I see the storm rolling in — and the storm is me.

Now, wait just a minute now; wasn’t that day of rest supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening? Uhhhh, let me think. Nope. As it turns out, resting does not make you superhuman. Moods still happen. This falls–as Mani reminds me–under the heading of “being human.”

It’s not easy to keep loving myself when I am the storm. I like myself a lot more when I’m the rest — double entendre intended.

I see it coming — the storm that is me. The storm that is a mood, nothing more, nothing less, and yet so easy to mistake as a failure, obliterating all the “good” stuff and making me a fraud for sharing beautiful moments on social media.

It comes on with a wispy but noticeable gust; I’m frustrated that the GPS on my phone took me on a wild-goose chase to meet up with my niece and sister for a nice dip at the little town beach they like.

I see it coming and cannot not stop it, just the way dark clouds roll in late in these hot summer afternoons, suddenly it’s dark at 5:00pm in July and the thunder rumbles in warning and then boom! Here comes the deluge.

It’s all-encompassing. I find myself hating the people in front of me in line at the grocery store, and the guy in the big truck who guns his engines. I imagine getting into a shouting match with him about politics. I hate myself a little for being hateful.

I make a point of thanking my angels the whole time I’m walk up to our second-floor apartment with the bags of groceries. It takes two trips, though I leave the 24-pack of water bottles in the backseat. I put everything away. I go pee in Aviva’s bathroom, so as not to wake Mani from a nap, only to see that her shampoo, which was upside down, has leaked all over the edges of the tub.

Part of me wants to call her at her dad’s and holler: YOU HAVE TO BE MORE CAREFUL. Thunder and lightning by now, rain lashing the windows of my mind, wind howling. I scrub and wipe and rinse. Next, I move to the dishes that I ignored all day in the kitchen sink. I’m noticing anger rising at a friend I’m feeling blown off by. I’m recognizing the drama of this even as I feel helpless to stop it. I’m breathing. I’m washing dishes. I’m breathing.

I burst into the bedroom and rant to Mani about the friend. Suddenly, I wonder if I have any friends who are feeling hurt by me. Shit. It feels good, though, to just say words out loud. To just say it, without actually blowing up a friendship I care about.

I make some food for Mani. Then I realize I ought to eat, too. I get out the smoked turkey, Monterey Jack, and lettuce, smear some mayo on a flour tortilla, and call it dinner. I realize the storm has let up a bit. But something in me knows that if I am going to write about taking rest, I have to write about this, too. About losing my shit and being ok. About how yucky and awful it feels to be inside that kind of storm — to be the storm itself.

I take a look around myself. My love for my people has not been annihilated. My beating heart is still intact, no worse for the wear. I haven’t done anything irreversible or harmful to others.

And the words I shared earlier in the day are not fraudulent. They are, like everything we share on social media, a glimpse. A moment. Nothing any of us shares is ever everything, but that doesn’t make any of it less genuine.

This is the summer of ripe avocados and blue corn tortilla chips.
Of coaching and talking about writing and life, seeing your faces and hearing your voices in Japan, England, Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, and all around the U.S.
Of not waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Of exhaling and believing the next breath will come, until it doesn’t, and no point worrying about that.
Of summer bodies, swimming to the dam, and walking around the house topless when the kids aren’t home.
Of an all-the-way open heart that’s learning how to have a swinging gate.
Of welcome, come in. Of closed for a nap, be back in an hour.

Of not knowing what’s next. Of knowing that we never know what’s next.
Of not letting that stop us from making all kinds of fabulous plans. Because if we don’t know, why not go big?
Of saying I’m here and then letting go. Of not pushing.
Of listening to the nervous system. Of rewiring old patterns of fight, of flight, of saying goodbye to the old, familiar you’re-in-trouble-shouldnta-said-written-shared-that voice.
Of loving the shit out of my wife. Of flowers I don’t pick and engines I don’t start and games I don’t play. Of wild blackberries.
This is the summer of entering year two — year two of not smoking, year two of self-employment.
Of standing on some kind of imaginary plateau and what a view and now what, but first a snack.
Of strong thighs and soft belly and loving the way my 40s are reshaping not only my body but my relationship to its sexy curves and grown-up realness.
Of trust. Has it ever not been the summer of trust? Nevermind, don’t answer that.
Of banging up against perfectionism and seeing it for what it is. Flimsy. Fake.
This is the summer of seeing what happens, when I remember it’s just practice.

5. After the Storm (Resilience)

Is it obvious, what I’m going to say now? Taking rest is a practice. Like any practice — from teeth-brushing to meditation to writing — this is not a one-time thing.

If you believe in God, this is the part where you sing God’s praises and say, Damn, that was smart, the whole Shabbat thing. It’s like God not only saw the writing on the wall — oh, these beautiful humans are going to be a mess sometimes — but like God, too, needed time to integrate all of that making and doing, all of that responding and surveying and deciding what to create next.

Shabbat doesn’t save me from moods, but it gives me a little more resilience when they come. Being good to myself — spending time just being — this is what reinforces the inner architecture that can withstand the gale force winds of emotions, passing moods, hormones, and other potentially damaging forces.

I write about practice. My work, be it prompting people in their writing or their lives (or both, as if often the case), is completely oriented around practice. And like all practitioners — of anything, really — I’m no exception. When I don’t take rest, my resilience goes out the window. It becomes a victim of the storm. And since the storm is me, I literally become my own victim. That’s really not how I want this to go.

And so I take rest. I hold on to the rafters when I have to. And I watch when the skies clear. I lean over and kiss my wife on the cheek. It’s dark, time for bed almost. And I’m ready, for a brand new week.