Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What if cleaning up your conscience was as easy as cleaning up the yard?

I have been spending a number of hours in the last week cleaning up the garden and the yard. Got rid of lots of weeds, pulled errant unwanted grass from pots of plants, raked up leaves, disturbed nests of ants, watered plants that looked like they were gasping their last breath from the dryness. The garden and the yard aren't yet quite at the place where I would like them to be, but they look MUCH better than they did a week ago, when we got back from our month away.

                             Shachar eating some grass outside our home, when he was still a baby

This got me thinking about the connection between cleaning up the yard and cleaning up my conscience - thoughts that actually go together given that we just entered the New Jewish Year - a time for cleaning, bringing in the new, starting afresh - and are just 2 days away from Yom Kippur (see information about holy day here).

On Yom Kippur, many Jews fast. Many Jews, who do nothing else religious throughout the entire year, go to services in the synagogue, and fast on this day, because it really is THE day in the Jewish calendar that is perceived as being really, really important to connect to one's people, religion and God. The fast begins right before sunset (all of our holidays begin in the evenings) and goes through to after sunset the next day.

I don't attend services and I don't fast, not because I couldn't skip the meals and water (for sure I would get hunger pangs around 11:00 in the morning, but I believe that I could hang on for 7.5 more hours), but because I wasn't brought up in a religious home, and it - services and fasting - never became part of our traditions. When I was living in America for short periods as an adult (during my post-docs and teaching experiences), I attended different services in different synagogues - reform, reconstructionist, conservative. Sorry... none of them spoke to me, and I decided that the religious aspect of Judaism was just not for me.

But I do connect to Yom Kippur, to the essence of the holy day. Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we have 10 days to make things right with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, whom we might have wronged. We have this time to contact them - by phone, by email, in person - and apologize for causing them harm, for treating them in a disrespectful way, for insulting them, for being violent toward them. We do this to re-join the brother/sisterhood of the world, to make things right for the new year, to cleanse onself, in a manner of speaking. If we atone for our sins, and really try to do right in this world, we are inscribed for another year in the Book of Life - a good book indeed...

But you really have to mean it.
And do it.

So back to the garden and yard

I am not a great gardener, but I love working in the garden and yard and keeping things tidy, green, aesthetic. It relaxes me, and it makes the place look better. At times when I begin pruning, I come close to destroying what I was just trying to cut back, but miraculously - at least up to now - everything works out in the end and the very very cut-back plant eventually thrives and gets better. All of my neighbors have seen me many times with a broom and rake and wagon for carting away the prunings and leaves, and I have received MANY invitations to come over to their yards as well.  

Not many people - at least those who have known me as an adult - have seen me become REALLY angry, and treat people in an unkind manner. It's not that I don't get angry, I do, but it usually passes really quickly, I almost never hold a grudge, and I have become so much better at putting life into perspective and saving my anger for the really really big awful things (like acts of racism). But every now and then I do slip, and I get angry and defiant and so sure that my point of view is the ONLY point of view and obstinate and convinced, more and more, that my request/action is the right one and the other's is stupid, uncaring, off mark...

This happens to me about once a year. And it happened to me last (Jewish) year as well. So, I use this time of atonment and introspection to try to make amends, to put out my hand in friendship and kindness, and ask forgiveness for becoming so wrapped up in my perspective, that I forgot (at least a bit), that there was another person on the other side, who also had a perspective, and a right to his/her take on the issue that divided us.  

I do this for me, so that I can live in peace with myself.
Of course I am always glad when the other person accepts my apology, and reaches out in kindness back to me, but that doesn't always happen, and that's okay. This is about me trying to make my life good and beautiful and aesthetic and a pleasure. It is about me being able to look at myself in the mirror and feel that I am trying to live the values that I hold, which is really the only thing we can do (I think...)

Working in the garden, raking the leaves, pulling the weeds, seeing a flower bloom every now and then, not killing all of your plants, is really wonderful. Being able to tell someone that you are deeply sorry for hurting them, and that you wish to rebuild the relationship, is also wonderful. Both are cleansing, both bring calm.

May you all have the chance to experience nice gardens and yards, the opportunity to try to make things right. May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

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