Passover Paradox: Freedom given, yet must be earned

This is the season of the epic freedom story of the Jewish people: our Exodus from Egypt.

We are told: we were taken out of Egypt.

That this was an act of pure Kindness on God’s part, executed by His Mighty Hand and Outstretched Arm.

That there was nothing we had to do to earn it.

That there was no inquiry to determine that we were deserving.

That the sea parted before us and closed over the Egyptian chariots, mired in mud.

That on the eighth day, Miriam led the women in dance.

We are told: after we were taken out of Egypt, we wandered in the wilderness for another 40 years, long enough for the enslaved generation to die out.

That is how long it took to get the Egypt out of us, to gain the freedom freely bestowed.

At any given moment I can find myself the recipient of gratuitous and enormous Kindness, and slogging wearily through a wilderness, where my personal history refuses to give up the ghost.

I belong to the tribe of freed people who nevertheless have to claim liberation by dint of persistent effort, in the face of temporary defeat, in the arms of temporary refuge.

Every year we gather to tell the story.

We are advised: live the story, don’t just tell it.

We are advised: the more we elaborate in the telling of the story, the better.

Our elaborations over our family seder table have included over the years truth-tales of the Holocaust, of the Russian Refuseniks, of the lost and the survivors of the Middle Passage, of the slaughtered of Darfur, of the countless losses of Mother Earth.

At one point in the story-telling we open the door of our house and invite in Elijah the Prophet to sip at the wine we have set aside for him.

We are told: in this season it is Elijah the Prophet who may turn the hearts of parents and children towards one another, thereby holding off total destruction of the earth.

May we in this of all years take in upon ourselves to turn our hearts towards one another, both trusting in the gratuitous Kindness and dedicated to persistent effort on behalf of one another’s freedom.


 

Banner photo from Passover Haggadah by Raphael Abecassis

We interrupt you to bring you this PAUSE

Nothing frustrates me more than to be interrupted when I am bent on my objective of the moment: until I can receive it as the pause I need.

In my more fanciful moments death looms like a vacation with a checklist directed towards tidiness and completion. The plants are watered, the bills are paid and there is enough in the checking account to cover the next month. The garden is weeded, mulched, and blooming in season. Deadlines have all been met, duties acquitted, birthdays and friendships acknowledged, questions big and little answered, sorries made good, forgivenesses extended.

No room for dust, accumulated mail, the list of Things that Must Be Finished  that multiplies by twos and threes for every task checked off: plane reservations, checking in on a sick grandson, grasping some essential key to a writing blind-spot that Gregory Orr’s essay must hold, emptying the overfull rain gauge so I can keep track of the bounty of this week’s generous skies.

And especially no tolerance for interruption and the disproportionate heat of irritation that comes with yielding my priority, my timing, my drive towards completion. 

In my more fanciful and unawakened moments – and they are plentiful, I actually try to live this way, in spite of the fact my doing so has led not to the sought-after continuity or satisfaction, but to exhaustion and dissatisfaction.

I have entirely missed living in those moments of interruption, defending against them as against a mortal assault.

So here is what I have learned to do in those moments: pause.

When I can just pause and let things come to rest where they are, let myself come to rest where I am – there is a fulfillment that is greater, I could say more real, than completing any task itself. The pause may call for me to turn away from my task and face the person, or cat, who wants my attention. I may cap my pen and place it in the red ceramic cup I use as a holder. Or I may put my laptop in sleep mode. Taking such a physical action lets things come to rest where they are.

It  takes naming where I am to let myself come to rest.

A string of namings helps to to let the irritation and heat dissipate. I am pissed. I am holding my breath. Oh, I am breathing. I am cooling down.

These two – a physical action and a string of namings – turn interruption into an ally who invites me to PAUSE, to stay in contact with the living moment.

Tasks lose their frantic edge and any claim at shoring up my security, identity, or attitude of good-will towards myself, and become one absorbing shift of relationship after another.

The heat of my irritation at countless daily interruptions dissipates.

The pause: this is life making itself useful, like my mother’s pen knife.

This practice confers an actual, not a false continuity, one that holds both the completed and the unfinished, the resolved and the unresolved, perhaps eases the difficulties of that most final of interruptions: death, attended by untidinesses of all kinds – loss, solemnity, awe, and mystery. Perhaps even my own death, inevitably to be attended by the untidy, and by the great unknown.

Still, life with cat

Lilah came to us as a rescue cat. We were smitten at first sight.

She had been with us for some years before our cat communicator told us that we were meant to make her healing services available to our clients. For a period of time, I kept a lovely portrait of her in my rental space – now that I have a home office, she participates in person, once I have checked with clients about cat allergies.  Contrary to Mark Twain’s caution, she can and does “improve the man” but without “deteriorating the cat.”

 

Still, life with cat

by Sara Eisenberg

 

Indifferent to the opening of a can

but never to a human arrival,

all silk, darkness, and underfoot,

Lilah appears

in answer to a summons

we two have not heard,

plants herself in doorways,

demands we remain alert and

agile in our gaining years,

 

and also roams the the neighborhood.

She is known to have preferred life on the street

to people who were not up to her standards,

though we never learned the precise details.

 

When my children were young, their friends called me

“Laurie’s Mommy”  or “Jenny’s Mommy,”

now I am “Lilah’s owner” to my neighbors,

even though we all know

no one owns

a cat,

ever.

.

But oh for life as cat, a body that

joyfully, madly shoulder rolls in pursuit of tail,

bounds straight up a tree trunk to the roof,

rounds itself into any soft corner!

Still, life with cat keeps me

close to mystery,

as every day I fall anew into

her shimmering green

eyes.


More Poetry:

https://alifeofpractice.com/poetry/women-friends-come-bearing-gifts/

https://alifeofpractice.com/musings/post-card-dancing-with-life/

 

 

 

Wait, what? An old insight beckons me to practice

Wait, what? I actually had that experience? That insight?

Paging through  my old journals turns out to be an archeological dig that yields an occasional gem of insight, but one that has remained uncut, untumbled, unpolished: unintegrated.

Recently I unearthed this entry, penned more than seven years ago.

There are times I want to just weep and it’s not “about” anything. My mind goes looking for a “reason” for grief or sorrow, and sometimes finds one, but that is a kind of after-the-fact approach, and not particularly fruitful.

What turns out to be fruitful is letting my impulse to weep become vivid. Then I notice that my my feeling has a gravity to it, a sinking quality that takes me deep into a well. There I encounter what I am starting to call – and not with a lot of confidence, but starting to call: joy. An awareness comes of something light, a taking flight, and the weeping-feeling and “joy” are intimate, they are married. Their joining has something to do with the beauty, preciousness of life, and that beauty and preciousness has something to do with its fleeting nature, with mortality.

This is quite a revelation to me. Joy has been a mystery, an unattainable goal, a hunh?, a head scratcher.

During the cycle of the Jewish High Holy Days, that runs for a 62 day cycle in the late summer to early fall I can intelligently if not comfortably make my way through introspection, remorse, taking actions that repair relationships, awe, holiness, the language of error and judgment: but the holidays that close the season, that are presumably shot through with “joy”? I’ve approached this part of the cycle with a sense of isolation, disappointment, mystification.

So it is no small thing for me to arrive at a growing edge where grief and joy of this subtlety are companions and teachers. The effects are like having felt oxygen-deprived for years…and then breathing in ocean and mountain air together, over and over again.

That’s what I call a rock of a moment: untumbled, unpolished, unintegrated –  an opportunity not yet lost, because it beckons me back to practice.

Recently I’ve had a lot of must-weep moments, along with a heightened sense of my mortality, and have reached for my  wonderful herbal friend Pulsatilla (common name, Windflower.)

There is no better first-aid than a few drops when ready to dissolve into tears, looking into the dark side of life.

And I can testify that these recent must-weep moments have no companion,  nothing I would even consider venturing to call “joy.”

So now, along with taking the help of my herbal friend, I also have to make time to sit.  

To follow the wisdom of this old insight: let weepiness become vivid, cut, tumble, polish me.

Allow insight to teach me, heal me, awaken me anew.

And I must be willing to sit without hope of recreating that delicious marriage of weeping and nascent joy, to sit without hope even of integration. That’s the nature of practice.

What counts, and how we count for the greater good

What counts and how we count: our bodies, our voices, our power to be and do good – are questions that preoccupy me. These days more than ever, when numbers drive “trending” news items and the result of every Google search.

As a woman, these questions also remain very personal, shaped by family dynamics and the post-WW II white assimilating Jewish suburban culture in which I grew up. How to find my place, when and where to speak up, speak out have long preoccupied me.

As a citizen, there are ways that I am counted that have to do with white privilege: freedom from harassment by police, merchants, and voting rights enforcers, access to credit and a good public education. As a citizen, there are ways I do not count that have to do with my gender: physical safety on the street, equal opportunity and pay in the workplace.

It got me to thinking about what my Jewish roots and experience have taught me about counting.

The way Jews count ourselves, we do not count heads:  you, Esther, are one; you, Sam are two; you, Bernie are three; you, Sylvia are four (my mother and her siblings.)

It is from King David that we learn of the danger of counting each head, census-like: he made a fatal choice when he counted heads. In the ensuing plague 70,000 Israelites died. The safe way for us to count is the way God had us do it in the desert: a half-shekel went into the pot for each Israelite, then Moses counted the shekels. Or the way Saul counted a shard of pottery offered up by each warrior to number his army. We are permitted to count on our fingers or toes, or according to the number of words of a verse from Psalms, as long as we do not count individuals. We are also permitted to count this way: not-one, not-two… This is how men make sure there are the required ten for prayer.

It is the collective that is important: ten for prayer, 600,000 souls for revelation at Mt. Sinai, 600,000 letters in the Torah. On Yom Kippur we number our sins, A to Z in the first person plural: we account for the state of our collective soul.

Nor do we count the heads of strangers. Abraham, sitting at the door to his tent, is our ancestral role model: he was on the look-out, so he could welcome them in as soon as possible.

Nor do we afflict or oppress the strangers who do show up at the doors of our tents, as we were strangers in Egypt.

Irony, even death, the way others count us: immigration quotas. Education quotas (my father earned his law degree in such a slot.) Tattooed serial numbers on the left fore-arm. Jews were zeroed out of neighborhoods, along with “dogs” and     “n—–s,”  as neighborhood signs commonly announced.

What our society counts and how have shaped our country

In 2010 I first came across the young field of ecosystems services when I taught a course in Ecobiology and Human Health. A  number of environmental causes began to pick up political steam as dollar values were assigned not just to the value of crops produced on agricultural land or the value of coal or gas extracted, but to life-supporting “ecosystem services.” Purification of air and water. Mitigation of droughts and floods. Pollination. If this last one seems odd, consider that by 2012, apple and pear trees were being hand-pollinated in areas of China due to the decimation of their natural pollinators, bees.* The commodification of nature was not lost on researchers, even as political capital for the environment increased.**

From this perspective, what we care about, we count. What we count, counts.

What we don’t count often remains hidden in plain view. As a society, we do not put a dollar value to us, collectively, of family members who care for their chronically ill, disabled, and dying kin. And so they soldier on without the moral and practical supports they need. And when we fear for what we care about, we turn towards quotas and all manner of exclusionary counting.

From another perspective, we know that societal choices guided by numbers-only bring us a host of plagues, not unlike the one that followed King David’s census: we call them unintended consequences.

This puts us right back in our soft, squishy unquantifiable humanity.

This brings us back to neither counting the heads of strangers, nor afflicting nor oppressing them. To open-hearted and open-handed behaviors.

How we work with the tension of these perspectives has everything to do with our own choices: what we count, how we count, and when we refrain from counting. Each of us. All of us together.


*https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193-Decline-of-bees-forces-China-s-apple-farmers-to-pollinate-by-hand

**The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to markets and payment schemes. Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rudolf de Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, Carlos Montes. Ecological Economics 69 (2010) 1209–1218 http://www.cepal.org/ilpes/noticias/paginas/7/40547/the_history_of_ecosystem.pdf

 

Simplicity heals urgency in the human & the civic body

An inquiry into healing, simplicity, urgency,  and shame

Last week I found myself talking with a new group of herbal medicine students about simplicity.

I was sharing with them how I think about certain complex health pictures that clients can present: a mix of chronic infection, auto-immune or other disease with a history of trauma, abuse, or serious injury, a history of addictions or serious mental health challenges like manic-depressive illness. It is not unusual for a client to walk in the door seeking relief from multiple and intricate health challenges.

Each body is a personal history where genetics, behaviors, injuries, abundances and privations of all kinds come to rest. And my first approach to herbal care is often a simple and restorative one.

Not simplistic, but simple. Meaning that there is so much going on in that one body, that calming and nourishing the whole system is where I start. Changes may be noticeable within a week or two on a moderate dose of a small number of herbs that specialize in calming overworked systems, nourishing and toning weak systems, nudging the body towards its innate health. The body settles down, the conditions settle down. Some symptoms tend to be moderately to greatly relieved in frequency, intensity, and the degree to which they impact daily life. Then together we assess the new, slightly more resilient baseline, and continue to rebuild health from there.

It was only later in the week that I made the connection to urgency.

Because all over my life, all over the civic life of our country, urgency was doing what urgency does: putting itself forward, saying: pay attention to me!

And all those various conditions of ill health I spoke about with the herbal students, all the symptoms that accompany each form of dis-ease: all are forms of urgency that point to what Hippocrates viewed as the body’s attempts to repair disturbances of balance.

I am a poet at heart, and I can take a metaphor beyond where I should try. But it seems to me that our nation is that client who is unable to face the truths of our history.

And so we are ever in search of a cure for life-threatening, painful, bothersome, disruptive symptoms (depending on your societal experience). The illness itself remains unassessed and unaddressed.

When an herbal client is unable to be truthful with herself or me about her history, then we may make little progress in restoring health. We may chase down one symptom after another, never able to address the reality of her condition.

Embarrassment and shame are commonly behind this pattern.

In the body of our nation, wounds inflicted and self-inflicted have festered untended since our founding: since we appropriated first the lands of North American indigenous peoples and then appropriated the bodies and labor of African indigenous peoples.

Healing the underlying imbalance in our civic body depends on our capacity to face our national history, where genetics, behaviors, injuries, abundances and privations of all kind have come to rest.

It requires of us an epidemic of simplicity of heart, nuance, skill, courage and kindness to heal the shame that ails us. I can imagine nothing else that will nourish us to health.

Thank you to my women friends who come bearing gifts

From birth to death, life is a messy proposition. Sanity, strength, hilarity, tears: I get through one thing after another thanks to my women friends who come bearing gifts and sorrows for one another.

This poem is for you, my true goddsibbs.

 

Birthing room etymology

by Sara Eisenberg

 

On any given day

I ponder

your dear faces:

you

and you

and you,

my godsibbs,

women I would invite

into my lying-in room,

my dying-in room

where fluids leak

sour, briny, pungent.

You have your wits about you,

words precise, blessed, musical,

walk right into trouble,

knives

at the ready,

to cut or cut out,

needles

at the ready

to mend or embellish,

soft cloths and lavender water

at the ready

to cool a feverish brow.

Your strewing herbs are

affection, regard, discretion –

with them you refresh the air, comfort us

in this dark, warm chamber.

Through what meanness,

incomprehension,

listening at the keyhole,

did affections thus exchanged

become idle, trifling,

and the speakers

thereof

common

gossips?

 


Image is fabric on canvas by Kenneth Ngosi that I photographed at the Hillsborough, NC Gallery of Arts.

 

Timeless, eternal words that root and bloom in my being

It’s odd and instructive how a word or a phrase can lodge, a seed in my being, send its roots down, and ultimately bloom.

i. “with”

“With” is one of those words, and it carries the essence and power of Mother.

Stay with me here. This isn’t your dinner order preposition, as in “I’ll have the ravioli with marinara sauce.”  Or one of the common public conversation identifiers of the day, as in “I’m with her.” That’s the grammatical role of a preposition in speech: to establish a relationship between two things.

See what happens when you just let with roll around slowly in your mouth, in your being, as a flavor of relationship.

What sensations, feeling-state, associations arise?

What nourishment is there for your receiving?

Does it feel personal, as if it is meant just for you?

Does it feel somehow timeless and eternal?

Some mix of the two?

“With” as the essential nature and essence of Mother has been with me for several decades, since early on in my training as a nondual Kabbalistic healer.

 

ii. ”the held-back goodness of the heart”

“the held-back goodness of the heart” leaped off the page* and took hold of me last week. Perhaps because these days I am so aware of my stash and the unwelcome Withholding One in me who I repeatedly exile to the unheated anteroom of my life.

There are nuances to my withholding, each supported by an assumption.

reserved: goodness I set aside, a vintage wine I am willing break out for occasions that meet my personal standard for worthiness.

saved up: goodness is “mine,” I have mistakenly concluded, and therefore is in limited and nonrenewable supply.

salted away: goodness is seasonal, reckons the  squirrelly part of me. It comes and goes, and I’d better collect it when I can. Hmm, so it is not mine exactly.

stockpiled, hoarded: similar to salted away, but infused with dread that some peculiar Edward Gorey-like event will forever seal me off from any access to goodness.

Notice that the nuances are in my withholding. Goodness itself is unchanging. It doesn’t vary in quality or go bad, like those food storage experiments lingering at the back of the fridge.

Notice that scarcity arises from my misunderstanding that I am the only source of goodness. The Sane One in me wholeheartedly testifies that goodness is both boundless and ever-present.

Goodness itself is mine, part and parcel of my imperfect human life and even my personality, yet not something I personally own.

Goodness: timeless and eternal, what I am made of.

With: timeless and eternal,  how I am nourished and nourish others.

Mother: timeless and eternal, no matter what.


*The phrase is from Beautiful Painted Arrow (Joseph Rael), co-author with David Kopacz MD of Walking the Medicine Wheel, Healing Trauma and PTSD. Thanks to my dear writing buddy Deborah Green for gifting me with the book.

From the sick-bed

From the sick-bed, the herbalist says: I know exactly when the scale tipped for my immune system and lost its preventive edge against this virus. I had already been taking liberal doses of Echinacea, Osha, garlic  and honey for three days, ever since my husband had come down with a cold. They usually do the trick. Between my go-to herbs and some slowing down of activity, I was keeping infection at bay.

 

From the sick-bed, the activist says: But I tipped the scale toward illness. I made a choice: to attend an all-day training on “cultural proficiency awareness,” aka diversity and inclusion. I am passionate on this topic, and there are so few constructive conversations taking place. I want to show up and participate at any opportunity. The day was engaging and revelatory.  I cannot recall ever before being asked to consider, for example, how stereotypes can be helpful. Everyone had showed up to really do the work.  One woman’s intention deeply touched me: “I want to be the sanctuary.”  The meeting room was cold, and I felt ill and sneezy by the time I got home.

Here I am a week later, having bowed out of traveling to DC for my first-ever writers’ conference. And I have no regrets.

I do have two and a half days of completely unscheduled time now to rest and recuperate. And at least another week of choosing with care when and where to engage, cancel, avoid taking on. Time to convalesce, an-almost quaint phenomenon. One more piece of privilege. I’m still going back and forth with myself about whether it is economic or white privilege or both. Convalescence is a luxury for many, among them single parents and breadwinners, anyone worried about job security, even kids worried about keeping up with schoolwork.

 

From the sick-bed, the healing one says: I feel more grateful than usual for this time, and for

hot teas, miso soup, baked sweet potato, brown rice, veggies with olive oil and garlic

quiet

a soft afghan to wrap myself in

a few herbs for my still-boggy sinuses: droppersful of Baptisia and a neti pot with Goldenseal, Echinacea and Propolis

homeopathic Ignatia to soothe my nervous system

 

From the sick-bed,  the awakening one says: And more grateful than usual for every one of you who is out there engaging with as much kindness, consciousness and skill as you can while I bench myself for now. There are other days when some of you will choose to step out for rest, or be felled by a Big Piece of Life, and I’ll be right out there working my fanny off.

We take turns in actively holding up the world. We run and we return. We do what we can when we can. As we fall back or fall down, others get up and get on with it.

Wherever you find yourself in life today,

if you can throw yourself into the thick of things with an open heart, go for it!

If you are low on courage, be extra kind to yourself.

If you need a rest, pull back.

Lean on one another.

Take good care: of yourselves, and with one another.

What if I had the freedom to be Sara with as great abandon as that tree!

I distinctly remember the moment I recognized is-ness, the common state of all living things except us humans, for whom it remains an illusive state.  I was taking a hatha yoga class, looking out at the trees, and said to myself: that tree never questions what it is, why it is rooted where it is, or its purpose. It never questions.

What if I had the freedom to be Sara with as great abandon as that tree!

What if that freedom came with as much relaxation as effort!

To be human is to struggle with the movement of life. We try to fix life by pinning it down like a butterfly, turning it into a specimen, a dead thing. We put life on the witness stand and cross-examine it. We take our responsibilities seriously. We take ourselves seriously.

Which brings me to one antidote we rarely consider: collapse.

 

Imperative

by Sara Eisenberg

I say this to you in all kindness: collapse.

Don’t worry about rubble, dislocation,  flying dust.

 

It is just to relax,

end the exhaustion of holding

every which way,

in and up,

down and on,

that visceral tension,

those ringing nerves,

air-starved cells.

Collapse

 

into the shards of your questions and their answering wholeness,

sheltered in their feathered nest.

Smell, taste,

map them with gentle and probing touch.

Move with their quaking, aching rhythm.

Collapse,

 

sheltered there by the leaves of your shady oak,

ever undisturbed by thoughts of maple.