AV / ELUL 5781
The Lead up to My Shmitah Journey
I took this photo at sunset in the spring of 2021 — outside of a simple wooden cabin at Steep Ravine (on the Northern California coast), where I retreated as often as I could that spring and summer to try to restore my sense of sanity and to attune to the rhythms of the sea.
The month of Av on the Hebrew calendar (generally mid-summer) begins the arc leading up to the high holy days. The somber holiday of Tisha b’Av (literally, the 9th of Av) marks the destruction of both The First Temple and then the re-built Second Temple in ancient Jerusalem. It is a very sad day and the all of the traditional rituals for the day, including a full day of complete fasting, focus on sinking deeply into the experience of collective grief and loss.
The Jewish mystics invited us to experience the historical basis for traditional practices as our own personal experience–in the present–and to explore creative ways to enliven and embody traditional ritual. So, for the month of Av, we are invited to let go of everything we have been propping up with so much effort; to let go of structures that no longer serve us … and, like the temples, to just let our mighty identity fall away.
And this last July, on Tisha b’Av and in the weeks that followed, that’s exactly what I did. I completely disengaged from trying to make parts of my life work that just weren’t working, and hadn’t been working for so long. It wasn’t so much that I made a conscious decision to not invest any more energy in relationships that did not feel reciprocal or nurturing, it was more the realization that I just did not have any energy left to give.
Like so many people, I was exhausted and totally wiped out from the experience of living through a pandemic for over a year and a half on the heels of living under an oppressive, demonic, and soul-crushing regime for four years before that. I was overwhelmed by daily life. Being with the children and families of my home-based playgarden was my saving grace. Married life and family life had become so untenable and pretty much unbearable for me. I was, literally, carrying more weight than I could bear—both physically and emotionally—and I knew it.
That summer, I could barely get through a conversation with anyone that didn’t involve me crying. I felt on the verge of totally collapsing and completely losing my mind. I didn’t feel that I had any solid ground to stand on. And, even with mindfulness practice, and all of the tools that I have cultivated over so many years, and all of the loving support from those closest to me, I just could not sustain any sense of equilibrium. Every little thing was throwing me completely off balance. I honestly felt that I was losing my grip on my own sanity and I was struggling in my body on a daily basis.
So I trusted in the wisdom of the sages, and just stepped back to let my life come crashing in. And I sunk in to experiencing the whole range of grief, and despair, and loss, and complete devastation in the weeks that followed.
A compassionate and skillful therapist helped me wake up to the wreckage of my life, and of my body, and to chart a course toward well-being. I made plans to immerse myself in a 3-week wellness retreat on the west coast of Costa Rica, and scheduled it for the following month, during the last three weeks of Elul, a time of reflection and taking stock.
On Sunday, August 1st, I gathered with some of my dearest friends—an amazing group of women in their 70s and 80s—to receive their guidance and blessings in a lovely Blessing Way Ceremony for me as I turned 66-1/2 years-old, the exact midpoint between ages 63 and 70. In addition to the ancient Hebrew framing of seven-year cycles, Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education, framed the stages of human development in seven-year cycles as well. The tenth, and final stage of development that he described (from ages 63 to 70) is described as a time of harvesting, sharing experience, and spreading wealth. (See BACKGROUND: The Shmitah Year & Seven Year Cycles.) I felt buoyed up and encouraged to venture forth.
On the morning I left for Costa Rica, my husband Ben and I actually had a really wonderful conversation, both acknowledging that living on the same property (even separately) had run it’s course. And, in all likelihood, so had our marriage. We filled out divorce papers together, and decided to set them aside until I returned. I was grateful to be able to leave on my trip with Ben’s loving support.
The month of Elul (generally late summer), follows the month of Av, and the guidance for Elul is just to be with the fallout from Av. To survey the rubble and to notice what can be dusted off and salvaged, and what can be left behind. What gems shine through the debris, and what is not worth saving. Before jumping in to chart a course forward or to even reflect on possible courses of action, we are encouraged to take the time to observe right where life has brought us—for better and for worse. To honor it all. To take the month of Elul to just observe, respect and appreciate the circumstances of our lives and all that has gone before.
During the three weeks I was on retreat (the last three weeks of Elul), I spent some part of each day reflecting on my life as the days of Elul flew by. The retreat was really more like a gorgeous rehab/detox program than any kind of mindfulness retreat. Every moment there was infused with deep healing and incredible nourishment for my physical body, as well as a revival of my most open heart and a renewal of my joyful spirit. I was so happy to welcome back my capacity to smile!
While on retreat, I focused on healing in the present and took time to reflect on aspects of my life that had gone before. I did not think at all about the future, not even for one moment. When I reached out to Ben a few days before I was set to come home, his expectation at that point was that I would need to find somewhere else to live and somewhere else to have my home-based playgarden. We had very different recollections of the upshot of our final conversation before I left. Feeling myself to be in a tender and vulnerable place after three weeks of detoxing, cleansing, and restoring a sense of well-being in my body, I did not have it in me to engage with Ben or to make a case for me being the one to stay on the property and him finding somewhere else to live.
So there I was … the retreat was about to end (the day before Erev Rosh haShanah and the beginning of the Shmitah year), and I felt that I had no home to go back to and nowhere to welcome the playgarden children and families back to either. And I did not feel ready to cultivate a new chapter on my old stomping ground.
As I began to contemplate what a return to California would entail, I felt immediately overwhelmed and a wave of anxiety just washed over me. The prospect of finding a new home for myself and a new place to set up the playgarden, and holding the various needs of the children and the various needs of their families—with the backdrop of the pandemic continuing and another fire season likely approaching—made my whole body contract and become tense, and I could feel all of the joy draining from my whole being.
While at other times in my life it would have been the least of my considerations, I found myself paying attention to what I was feeling in my body. And, somewhat to my surprise, I felt moved to honor what my body was telling me. And to follow the lead of my body.
And the questions arose: If you don’t feel that you can go back, why not go forward? Why not forge a new path? The Shmitah year is calling to you … Come on, you’re 66-1/2 years-old, you have a strong, healthy, beautiful body — If not now, when?!
I felt drawn to say “yes,” to step into the mystery of a new adventure. A Shmitah adventure. I was not at all sure what a Shmitah adventure could even be but, somehow, I felt the rightness in my whole being: I needed a break. A complete break. I needed to allow the landscape of my life to lie fallow this year if there was any possible hope for a healthy, bountiful future harvest. I needed to return to the wild. To the mystery. To the unknown. I needed to live a life stripped down to its essence. I needed to commune with the elements. With the essential. Unmediated. Unadorned. Unshaped by previous notions and conceptions. Just letting it all go. Exhaling. Deeply.
As it happened, a week after I set off on my Shmitah journey, I received a heartfelt text from Ben letting me know that he had given more thought to how we might move forward … He wrote that he couldn’t justify staying on the property if I wanted to return and welcome the playgarden children back. If that was my passion, he wrote, he would endeavor to find a place to rent and to move off of the property. I received Ben’s words with an open heart and a big smile, “That would probably have been a good discussion for us to have had before I let all of the playgarden families know that I wouldn’t be returning and threw all of their lives into a tailspin!” I wrote back. To which Ben responded: “We all have a time and a place when we’re ready.”
The truth is I was primed for this adventure. Forces way beyond me converged and conspired to make it happen. The timing aligned. I wrote back to Ben, “After reclaiming my finely-tuned body, I’m ready to take it out for a test dive!”
And so began my journey of embodiment through the Shmitah year.
This Shmitah Torah website is tracking my “inner journey,” reflecting on the experience of making the care of my physical body my highest priority in the coming year. With weekly posts framed by each weekly Torah portion and the values of Shmitah, I am exploring what it means and feels like to lead a fully-embodied life … and to let the wisdom, needs, and intuition of my own 66-67 year-old body lead the way.
To follow the “outer journey” of my travels across Costa Rica, click here. (This is a kind of online travel log of my adventures through the Shmitah year in real time. It includes journal entries, photos, videos, maps, and links to places I visit.)