My memory of the brief exchange is so sharp that, some forty-five years later, I can picture the layout of the livingroom, just where I was sitting – a stranger in a strange land – among a group of a dozen or so women.
The ceiling of the old Victorian was high, the walls a creamy white, an oriental rug spread out over a worn wood floor. The lighting was soft. A woman seated diagonally across from me on a damask-covered sofa spoke: “I always thought that if anyone got to know me, really know me, they would see me for the fraud I am.”
At that moment, hearing another woman speak the words I had so often furtively whispered to myself, I realized how alone I had truly felt, a stranger even to myself.
I was flooded with relief to have found my tribe.
This memory sprang back to life during the Passover Seder a few nights ago, as I reread a slip of paper I had tucked into my Haggadah – the text that tells the story of the Freeing of the Israelites from slavery.
God may have reached into history with “His long arm and outstretched hand” to free our bodies from forced labor. But our Exodus from Egypt is ultimately about getting the Egypt out of us: freeing ourselves from our sense of estrangement from one another and from God or Reality.
It is up to us to free ourselves of misunderstandings and beliefs that destroy the promise of intimacy.
My scribbled note lists three kinds of estrangement:
feeling ostracized in one’s environment
feeling displaced among one’s friends
feeling estranged from one’s own soul
That sharp memory of finding my tribe? Encoded within it are remnants of every one of these themes of isolation and alienation. Sometimes they still ache, like a deep old scar. Occasionally they bleed freely and bright red, as I am wounded afresh.
But this tribe around our Seder table is full of good will, deep listening, intentions for the world to not destroy itself. And full of the wisdom of having devoted themselves to the study and practice of bench science and glass art, history and philosophy, theology and nursing, Afghani tribal and US government versions of conflict and diplomacy, helping others re-write the stories of their lives and writing for herself as a necessity, the art of guiding traumatized children and families through the education system, and the new political science of identifying two outworn regulations that can be dispensed with for each new one proposed.
So much engagement with life, so many hearts hands and feet finding ways to offer welcome and solace to the ostracized, a refuge for the displaced, and soulful connection to the estranged.
So much engagement – with one another – that our guests lingered for the better part of an hour after we concluded the Seder at 12:10am, reveling in the freeing intimacy of the evening and the nourishment of hospitable and welcoming hearts.
Even as we struggle with how we may harbor one another, relieve the desperate journeys and living conditions of those who are even now physical outcasts, we strengthen our capacities to be of true service as we heal our own personal estrangement.
Banner photo from The Passover Haggadah, illustrated by Raphael Abecassis