I am … so pooped. Sometimes, my work feels like it falls into the category of two separate jobs, for the sake of argument let’s call them the “sacred” and the “mundane”. While the day-to-day alternates between these two modes, the world outside chugs right along relentlessly. With a pause in the rains and a return of the sun, suddenly everything is in bloom in San Mateo. Winter disappeared as the El Nino rains have brought Spring “in like a lion”. It is a beautiful (and histamine-filled) reminder that change is afoot. Much like our Gregorian (solar) calendar, the Hebrew (lunar) calendar is experiencing a Leap Year, but instead of an extra twenty-four hours, we get an entire extra lunar month (approximately 28 days). Usually we prepare to celebrate Purim at the tail end of winter, when the days are still short and cold, before the turning of the season and the return of the light, but this year Purim ushers in Spring: coinciding with both the Spring Equinox (March 19th) and a Lunar Eclipse (on Purim itself, March 23rd).
Purim is a holiday, in short, about a woman (Esther) who lays her life on the line to save her people. Certainly - you could tell it differently: an evil man’s (Haman’s) plot to kill all the Jews and one man’s (Mordechai’s) plan to save his people. However you crack it, it is a story about facing fear, and standing up to evil. To celebrate the occasion, we dress in costume, eat fruit-filled cookies that are supposed to remind us of the Bad Guy’s hat (or ear?), and participate in a rowdy and raucous recounting of the story (think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” style audience-participation). It’s an outrageous revel that shakes off the doldrums of winter at a time when we are commanded to be joyous. The commandment applies not just to Purim alone, but to the entire Hebrew month of Adar (or two months as is the case in a leap year) leading up to the holiday itself.
Jewish tradition suggests that there are two kinds of joy to which we must become attuned this month: Simcha and Sasson. The former, according to the Kabbalists (as noted in Melinda Ribner’s, Kabbalah Month-by-Month) is the kind of joy that we can anticipate: a wedding, graduation, or birth of a child, for instance. Simchas are occasions that we know to look forward to, moments that we circle on the calendar and count the days until they arrive. Sasson on the other hand, is unexpected: the guy in front of you in line at Starbucks paid for your coffee, an unanticipated visit or phone call from an old friend, a patch of blue sky amidst the gray rainclouds. Simcha is joy that holds us up and demands our full attention, but Sasson sneaks up on us, and can even be missed if we’re not looking for it. These kabbalists teach that to fulfill the commandment of being joyous on Purim, and during the month(s) of Adar, is holier than even fasting and asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Perhaps these rabbis understood that joy is sometimes harder to muster than even self-denial and contrition. To be happy on command is no small feat, especially when the candle is already burning at both ends - as it is wont to do. There are moments when, to quote Bilbo Baggins (er, I mean, J.R.R. Tolkein,) “I feel thin...stretched… Like butter scraped over too much bread.” Winter disappears and the flush of Spring catches us in its whirlwind of activity, and if you’re like me, you get caught in it and swept downstream, until suddenly you’re just plain old pooped, making it harder to distinguish between the sacred and mundane, and much harder to spot the Sasson.
Sacred and mundane. Simcha and Sasson. Rabbi Irwin Kula suggests that the Hebrew word for “mundane” (chol) implies a temporary state of emptiness - something that is not-yet-full. We’ve got within us the capacity to reframe our understanding of the tasks that seem pedantic and draining. By choosing to see Sasson - unexpected joy - in the places where we anticipate boredom, we infuse all of our moments with meaning. We should circle those important dates on the calendar, anticipate them with great relish, but not at the cost of noticing joy in the moments-between. Perhaps if I had approached my potential downtime these past few weeks as opportunities for Sasson, instead of as dead-air time, I might not have found myself in the precarious position of being so pooped. So I look to today, to the present moment, and am grateful that I can spend a quiet evening at home - tucked away from the blooming and allergen-filled world outside, powering down for some R&R to prepare for tomorrow - full of the potential of Spring waiting to burst forth into something sacred, something joyful.
I've been having lots of conversations about pain and the unnervingly necessary role that it (and for the sake of argument, let’s include sorrow, anguish, anxiety, and fear) plays in our lives. It’s March, and we’re rounding the last corner of winter. It’s time to air out the house, clear out the clutter of hibernation, and return our attention to the proverbial garden. I am a Sunset Magazine devotee and each month, for an indulgent half hour or so, I escape into its pages. I devour the tantalizing travel articles, ardently dog ear and cut out delectable recipes that I will never make, and glance through the gardening section, just to keep up with the latest in... you know... nature. About a year ago I began noticing that there were some generally good life lessons to be learned in those gardening sections: prune in this season, plant in that one (“a time to reap, a time to sow” etc, etc…) In order to make way for the new, wether in a garden or in our own lives, we have to get in there, dig out the old, dead and dying parts.
And it's freaking painful! Grief, frustration, rejection, disappointment, abandonment, betrayal, it all hurts - it sucks - it more than sucks, it can throw us into what a mental health professional would call “Crisis Mode,” when it’s all we can do to breathe, eat, work, and sleep. I’ve been there. Recently, in fact. I liked to think of it as being in “Safe Mode” (does that even exist anymore in this world of sleek, touchable technology?) Back in college when my clunky, virus-ridden, laptop would get overloaded it would go into Safe Mode. The screen would become comically pixelated, everything bigger and slower, and only the essential programs could function. That’s what Deep Pain feels like to me - like you’re just big and boxy and awkward and trying to get through the day, week, month… year.
Whenever I find myself, or someone I love, in these depths I think of my most favorite quote from my most favorite play, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Allow me to set the scene: Harper, a young newly-wed, in significant pain herself, is often left alone and has a tendency to hallucinate some powerful, perhaps even divine encounters. In one such instance she approaches the animatronic replica of a pioneering “Mormon Mother” (as the character is called) at the Mormon Visitor’s Center of Manhattan. Here is the dialogue that ensues:
Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?
Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.
Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.
Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.
Sometimes, we’re just “mangled guts,” but when we’re in emotional pain we don’t often give ourselves the permission to actually heal - to actually recover. We want to move through it quickly, or perhaps we dwell in it and let it fester; either way, I don’t think we’re that great at handing it in general. Maybe it’s because our communities and even our families have become more diffuse, maybe it’s because we hold ourselves and each other to unattainable and irresponsible levels of perfection - I don’t know, we can figure that one out later. Whatever the reason, it’s a bad one.
We’ve got a new moon tomorrow (more on that next week), and a solar eclipse on top of that. Astrologically speaking, eclipses can slingshot us into periods of rapid change. Ever since I was a pre-teen, I’ve been fascinated by astrology; but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so I’ll keep this brief. According to Chani Nicholas (my favorite astrology blogger), eclipses bring big shifts, whether we want them or not. She opens her blog about this week’s eclipse with the following: “Each one of us has the right to heal. To heal from the pain of our past. To heal from the pain of the present. To heal from the pain that feels like it will never cease. It is our right. It is also our responsibility. For if we do not take up the tremendous task of healing, then we are sure to recreate and propagate our suffering.”
Pain is the great Change Maker. If we listen to it, it’s got something to teach us. If we can honor it, and take the time to heal, to mourn, to lick our wounds then perhaps we can arrive on the other side of it with renewed perspective and hope - both of which can make change possible. Now is the time to do the healing. Spring is on the way with another cycle of birth and growth and flourishing life, and it's time to tend that garden...