There is a particular collision of calendars in my life right now, as every fall. The September new moon has once again brought the Jewish liturgical calendar into play and called me to an annual Accounting of the Soul. I proceed. I hold firmly to my intention to be who I am, plain, ordinary and unique.
And all the while I shift my rhythms in response to the pulls of other cyclical agendas. The mix of rhythms can be as enlivening as a good jam and as bewildering as the cacophony of an orchestra tuning up.
My body calendar has begun to register the shorter days. 7:15 and it’s already getting dark. Mornings can be a little sneezy and congested as ragweed pollination gets underway and leaf mold growth accelerates. The garden looks worn and dried out, and has revived only momentarily with yesterday’s downpour. Apples are hanging so heavily they pull the branches towards the ground, but they are not yet ripe enough for picking.
Then there’s the school calendar. As Labor Day approaches, olfactory memories turn my thoughts to the scent of a freshly opened green and yellow box of Crayolas. I have a commanding sense that playtime is over and it’s time for me to get down to serious work. So I revisit work plans made way back last spring, adjust them for what I can see now that I couldn’t see then, for what I can live now that I couldn’t live then.
The winds and storms of the election year calendar spread troubling waters across my landscape, and I respond by keeping my eye on a near horizon I have set: the hour the last polling place closes on November 8.
But the calendar at the forefront for me at this time of year is the Jewish liturgical one. The new moon signals the beginning of the month of Elul on September 4 and the High Holy Day season that will end at sundown on October 23.
The month of Elul invites me into an extended personal examination of conscience and behavior through the practice of Accounting of the Soul (Heshbon Hanefesh.) Experience has taught me that whatever preparation I undertake now will shape my journey through the whole season.
Overlook the opportunities for conscious change, aka awakening, and any efforts to move in those directions will be much harder during the rest of the year.
How can that be? Is there really a season for change?
The Jewish Sages teach that during this period “God is In the Field,” more accessible than at any other time of year. You can think of the Field as a place you’d choose to meet a friend for an intimate conversation that doesn’t require a latte or even a cup of tea – a Friend who holds a High Position – it can be tough to get together during most of the year. Or you can think of this as Rumi’s field “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing” – there is that much Kindness available to meet whatever honesty, self-responsibility, clarity about my limitations and gifts I can summon for this annual talk.
When Elul ends, God leaves the Field for the Throne of Judgment. I will be judged on Rosh Hashonah, the New Year. I am responsible for my actions, and for their consequences. But God’s judgment relieves me of the burden of self-judgment. And God’s judgment – which includes whether I will live or die, and if I am to die this year, by what means – will be sealed as night falls at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. You can think of the Throne of Judgment and the King who occupies it as a Reality that responds to our world by bending towards kindness – not leniency, but kindness.
I have often approached this Accounting by journaling my way through an assessment of relationships: to myself, my family members, friends, communities, God, work, creative pursuits. Where have I fallen down as a human being? What needs attention, repair, simplicity, yielding, persistence, forgiveness? Too often the assessment has not come off the paper into life.
Almost a year since the launch of A life of practice, a conscious choice to show up consistently and differently in the world, and I am approaching the Accounting with an intention to make room for the Other without surrendering myself.
I am surprised to find how this intention opens up space in my brain, slows my biochemical anxiety response and even clock time, and actually changes my rhythm and responses. My husband asks me a question, and I respond in a way he can take it in – neither too little nor too much nor the “wrong” information (all well-worn paths).
This is Accounting in action mode.
As I intend and attend to the moment, I return – again – to who I am.
Even as I shift my routine towards longer evenings, reach for the Crayolas, or check in with election news.
Perhaps you are the the one who holds the calendar for your whole family – birthdays, rehearsal dates, soccer matches, PTA meetings, travel dates.
Perhaps you are beholden to a medical calendar, filled with diagnostic tests, treatments, days and times meals will be delivered or transportation provided.
Perhaps you are devoted to the calendar of Mother Nature herself.
What calendar(s) govern your time in this season?
How do you hold to who you are?
P.S. As you reflect, let this sweet melody guide you:
Return again, return again
Return to the land of your soul
Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are
Born and reborn again
Lyrics and music by R. Shlomo Carlbach. Sung by one of my early teachers, Carlbach’s student, R. David Zeller
For more on life’s rhythms: