In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we Jews are prodded to remember, reflect and return. This past year, and honestly the year prior as well, have been well… Hell. I know, I know, Jews don’t believe in a place commonly known as “Hell”. It is just a bit different for us. For the past year my Hell has been right here on this earth, right here in my life, right hear in my head and right here in my heart. My Hell is a very personal solo experience, unless you are close enough to get in my line of fire like my husband, my kids and a few close friends. The fire that has burned within me from too much pain, too much confusion, trying to control too many things, struggles with relationships, being a working mom who loves her job and a mom who often feels the quiet hum of guilt and worry every single day. All of this has contributed to a tough year to say the least.
During the Jewish High Holidays we recite the Unatanatokef prayer, which asks us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask if we like what we see? Will we live? Will we die? The whole year ahead left open to just those two boxes. Dying or living? Which will we choose? Or, which will be chosen for us by God? Or worse, will we be living yet feel like in some ways we are dead? Looking in this mirror being held up for me to peer into I see two distinct parts staring back at me and at times they are in battle with each other: my fire and my light. Both glow but are distinctly different experiences of self. One is healing with a warm glow and the other can burn white hot. These parts are equally important and both fully me, but maybe not the best me if not in balance.
The fire that has burned in my soul this past year has not been a pleasant one. The warm healing glow has vanished and has been replaced by a burning ember unable to ever fully go out and at moments can flame up and destroy people and relationships. The fire is from many things outside of me and inside of me: the death of my father, the metaphorical death of other members of my family, my marriage being in a low place, my son being bullied and it being dismissed by the school, broken promises by trusted people, manipulation by those who are supposed to protect me, and feeling used, disrespected and discarded. By all accounts a real winner of a year! For my part, I was less than stellar and exhibited personal qualities that helped the fire burn longer, hotter, and inevitably more damaging. This led to my arrogance, my weakness to know when or honestly even how to change course, my desire to “win” over understanding, my vengeful side and my hardened heart.
This fire within me has mostly been my protector, but now she in moments has overtaken me and become a detriment. The light from deep within which so many blessings have come was gone. The smoke from my fire hid my light. The smoke hid me from me. In moments I became the fire: red, hot embers exploding without warning. The fire came from my mouth, my heart and my head. The fire within was my personal Hell. The fire made my life Hell. The fire made me Hell to deal with at times while the smoke made it hard for me to see what was going on around me. The fire and smoke choked me as a wife, mother and friend.
To share these shadowy sides with all of you is a bit scary. It is not easy to let you in on how life isn’t always as it appears on carefully selected pictures for Facebook with funny or poignant tag lines or artsy pics on Instagram. It is scary because some of you who read this may judge me, or maybe you are one of the people who have been scorched by me. Some of you will never see your shadowy side, but will use my words against me to make yourself feel better about yourself without seeing your own smoke, fire and hardened heart.
I am willing to take this risk because I know when I reveal I begin to heal my soul; my words become the cool water that puts out the glowing red embers. I reveal in the hopes that some of you might feel less alone in your white hot pain. I reveal because growing up in my family, and even now, I am reminded how to them my experiences of pain are not seen as valid, nor appropriate, or sadly of no consequence to some even now. I reveal to remind myself that my feelings, even the dark shadowy ones, deeply matter. They are real and they are mine, even though unattractive and far from perfection. I reveal to encourage others to share their confusion and pain in the hope of change and to shatter the bonds of shame and soothe the pain of loss.
Unatanatokef. Who shall live? Who shall die? May all of us choose life and break out of the self-imposed shackles of our own Hell, gently pour ourselves out to others to extinguish the fire in the hope of a year that is filled with the warm light of love, contentment and sweetly painful honest reflection.