Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Field Notes for the Month of Elul

So already, it's less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, and the King has been in the field for a few weeks now. That's the way the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, describes G-d's nearness and availability to Jews during Elul, the month of the Jewish calendar during which Jews prepare themselves for the forgiveness of and the reunion with G-d that they hope to realize during the Jewish high holidays. Simon Jacobson explains the Alter Rebbe's chosen metaphor for G-d during Elul as "a king who is returning home from his travels" (26)* in 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays:
"When the king is in the field . . . every person has the opportunity, without petitioning for an audience, to go over to him, say hello and ask for whatever he or she needs. The king is smiling,  . . ., and he is predisposed to grant all requests. . . . It is a profound message of hope that we don't have to wait for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to find G-d. We can go out to meet Him now"* (26).
As a Jew who longs for this holiday season to have the positive redemptive power for me personally that it's intended to have for all Jews collectively and individually, I've known the King is in the field, believed it, been glad of it--and still resisted going into the field.

Two "Paradoxical" Tasks
As I understand it from Jacobson's book, the kind of repentance this holiday season calls for--certainly about seeking G-d's and others' forgiveness, but as importantly about striving to forge an authentic connection or reconnection to G-d, to deepen an existing connection to Him, and to be our most enlightened, compassionate selves in relation to others and ourselves--requires what seem initially to be two almost paradoxical tasks: taking initiative and getting out of one's own way* (28, 30). How can we walk boldly and confidently into the field when we're divided beings, minimally composed of two parts, one of which must somehow get out of the way of the other? Sounds as if we'd manage clumsy initiative at best.

But that's just the point: it's okay for our initiative to be clumsy. The paradox evaporates when we realize we don't have to be bold, self-assured, and flawlessly prepared--words we associate with taking initiative in businesses, institutions and organizations. The initiative we take just needs to be heartfelt and sincere, aimed as much as we can aim it at finding G-d and speaking directly to Him. This isn't easy for those of us who are filled with doubts about ourselves, about G-d, or about both. But just watching ourselves make that effort, take the initiative to step out of our selves and into that field more than we have managed to do before, is empowering and uplifting.

Trouble in Berlin
Embracing the field but avoiding G-d: that's been my chronic problem. Having used Jacobson's book to prepare myself for the holidays for the last two years, I've come to think of G-d as being extraordinarily nearby because thanks to the "the King is in the field" metaphor, I actually do imagine G-d as being out among the goldenrod in the field that extends toward the woods from the front of our cabin in Berlin, New York. So I've liked sitting in the Adirondack chairs in front of our house and looking at that field, and I've liked lying in bed at night knowing that the moon-bathed field just beyond our front door was hardly empty. But just liking that field and experiencing it as inhabited by the Divine is not the same as stepping into it to encounter G-d--not just divinity but the Divinity--the source of that spark in me that Simon Jacobson often speaks of in 60 Days as the Divine essence, and that I believe lives within my own soul and everyone else's.

So I recognized that I had two problems, which I suspected were related to each other:  embracing the field but avoiding G-d, and not understanding my avoidance and resistance not only to going out to the field, but even to picking up 60 Days on some days. 

At one point I realized that even though I could sincerely and strongly encourage others to go out into the field and to speak directly to G-d as Jacobson's book encourages, I still wouldn't go into that field myself. I began to see this as a function of hopelessness--my own personal hopelessness. I could hope enthusiastically for others, could feel that "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me"*(7) was meant for them. But I couldn't get beyond the feeling that I was unworthy of being hoped for, consoled, embraced, supported, loved; I couldn't stop believing that somehow I was supposed to do for myself what I imagined G-d gladly doing for others. 

I'm not sure there's a more lonely feeling than hopelessness that's been tripped over and "discovered" as if it hasn't been lying there all the time. Clearly this combined sense of unworthiness and ultra-responsibility was the part of me that I had to get out of the way of that other part of me--the part in which my Divine essence resides, the part of me that might easily and naturally extend itself through me into the field, into the world, toward G-d if I could remove the obstacle blocking its path.

Visiting Van Gogh at the Clark Art Institute 
The challenge of walking out into the field to speak to G-d directly was already weighing on me when my husband Scott and I drove to the Clark Art Institute in August for its "Van Gogh and Nature" show. It felt comforting to be heading over to the Clark: last year its show called "Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art 1950-1975" had featured the Helen Frankenthaler color field paintings that had helped me for the first time feel connected to and comforted by the King in the field.**

The Van Gogh exhibit inhabited the same space that "Make it New" had occupied last summer. The first room featured Van Gogh's early Dutch-influenced landscapes--somber, serene, and beautiful, more confirmations of my dark state of mind than counter-suggestions. I was in no need of a dose of desolation, but even that desolation was reverent.***

It was the central room of the exhibition, a room partially illuminated by oblique natural light, that ejected me from my state of hopeless sadness. Van Gogh had painted most if not all of the works in this room while he was a voluntary psychiatric patient in the hospital in Saint-Rémy.  "'I still have work to do,'"**** Van Gogh had explained to his brother. And so he painted nature, which he regarded as "'beautiful,'" very often painting the view from his hospital window.

Among the eight or nine masterworks on the walls of that room, there was one that made me ridiculously happy, banished my despair suddenly and completely. It was one of those works Van Gogh had painted while looking out of the window of his hospital room onto the abundant wheat fields beyond the hospital grounds. I imagined that Van Gogh's Divine essence must be so fully integrated into his soul and painter self that it just had to flow from and through him onto that canvas: the golden wheat in the foreground of the painting practically shimmered with it. Standing among the other viewers, I suspected I was not the only one mesmerized by that shimmer--how much of it was paint, how much light, how much Van Gogh's vision and sensibilities, how much the Divine through Van Gogh? From my 60 Days point of view, the King was surely in Van Gogh's wheat field.

Van Gogh's Fieldwork in Saint-Rémy
I looked at the painting for a long time, then went back and looked at it again. How important was it that "work" had yielded this painting with such power to arrest,  captivate, and transform? 

To contextualize the work in the Saint-Rémy room, the Clark had provided a direct quotation from Van Gogh on one of the walls: "'In the face of nature it's the feeling for work that keeps me going." Initially, it was the phrase "feeling for work" that moved me: for so many years, I loved teaching, knew I was in the right field, and knew my work mattered, even "in the face" of education as it seemed to be evolving--or devolving in too many cases and places. I realized that in this next phase of my life I need work that I can have a "feeling for," and teaching might be part or all of it. I still have work to do.

Another version of the same scene from the window
But "face of nature" also suggested something uneasy and adversarial in Van Gogh's encounter with nature. Did the "beautiful" environs of Saint-Rémy intimidate as well as inspire? Or was it Van Gogh's own psychological nature, the problems that had led him to the hospital, that threatened? Whatever the case, work helped him to manage his demons if not dispose of them during his Saint-Rémy stay.******

If Van Gogh was also painting to express his Divine essence or to connect with G-d, the exhibition didn't say so explicitly. Scott told me that as a young man, Van Gogh was deeply religious and had even trained for a religious vocation. It's not unlikely that "the emotions that take hold of me in the face of nature"**** drew some of their power from the religious enthusiasm of his youth.
“the emotions that take hold of me in the face of nature.” - See more at:
“the emotions that take hold of me in the face of nature.” - See more at:
“the emotions that take hold of me in the face of nature.” - See more at:

Resisting and Embracing My Fieldwork in Berlin
The month of Elul was in progress, and inspired as I was by Van Gogh's work, I resisted the 60 Days daily routine, approaching each day's prompts with anxiety and doubt. But a pattern developed: each day I sat down fearful that that I'd have little or nothing to say in response to the prompts--and then I began writing and responding with so much to say that I often exceeded the notebook space I had allotted for the day's reflection. 

I was familiar with the prompts from my two previous years of using the book, but each time I sat down to write, I felt like I was both stronger and weaker than I'd ever been before. I could talk about my deepest disappointments, my strongest fears, and my most shameful pettinesses--and I could also name and use my strengths, confess my vulnerabilities in ways that illuminated rather than hid quintessential aspects of myself from myself. 

It might be easier to start talking to G-d honestly if one has some practice talking as honestly as possible with oneself. And so I began moving into the field, haltingly but honestly, not all the time, sometimes at moments when I thought I couldn't or wouldn't, but knowing my goal was to speak to G-d. I knew that there was an upcoming daily prompt that would ask me to write Him a letter, and the prospect of that made me nervous. But when I got to it, fearful I couldn't and wouldn't do it, I did do it. 

I'm not easy in the field, but I keep trying to be there. And it's not often that I can actually speak up to G-d in my own voice, but I've gotten it into my head and heart that my efforts to reach toward G-d within and without are in of themselves good. So I keep trying: that's my work at the moment, at least some of it, and I'm trusting in it. Thus far, the more I give to it, the more I get from it. And the 60 Days book provides all kinds of suggestions for connecting to the season through Jewish teachings, traditions, and texts. When I can't talk to G-d, I can still do something.

Moving Forward and Deeper
Just this past weekend a few close college friends and I headed Down East to the family summer home of another close college friend. From the Fisherman's Cottage on Scheiffelin Point, we looked out on Frenchman's Bay, towards Mount Desert Island and Cadillac Mountain. The view on the late Friday afternoon we arrived was spectacular--nearby islands framing vistas of further blue-silver water and further blue-black islands, gateways opening onto further vistas extending placidly, seemingly endlessly toward the horizon.

During the day on Saturday, every part of the broad expanse of water in front of the first set of islands had its chance to sparkle shamelessly as the sun made its way across the September sky. Though the coastal colors and view were completely different, I found myself thinking about the wheat that shimmered in Van Gogh's paintings. How would Van Gogh have gotten all of us to pay attention, breathe deeply after he took our breath away, give thanks even more for the world than for him and his extraordinary gifts? I enjoyed how art and nature working in tandem could help us to transcend our small but nonetheless significant selves. 

Later, looking out on Frenchman's Bay as the sun got ready to set, long after the shimmering I'd been watching all day had passed too far to the west to be visible from the porch, I focused on the islands, softened now by a hint of haze. "Depth of field," I muttered to myself. My 60 Days radar had detected another field where G-d was standing, waiting without impatience.

The following morning when the opportunity to kayak on that blue-silver field arose, I just had to say yes, had to get close to that sparkling water, had to reach that first set of islands so that I could see beyond it to the gateways and vistas not visible from the Fisherman Cottage's porch. I'd never kayaked before, but the water was calm and the kayak moved easily, as if it were helping me. We didn't see seals, but we did see porpoises--and there was no time like the present to do something new, to venture.

Looking Beyond Frenchman's Bay and Elul
Because I've been embracing art and nature as repositories of the Divine, requiring myself to say to myself what I know about myself even when it makes me profoundly uncomfortable, acknowledging to myself and others that I believe that the King is in the field, and striving to get myself into that field to talk to him as myself and for myself, I'm beginning to step beyond some of the limiting negativity that has prevented me from reaching, let alone soaring, spiritually and personally.

I'm thinking about depth of field this Elul--not just trying to move into the field, but to go deeper and further in than I've managed to do the last two Eluls. I'm accomplishing this in tiny increments--I think. But if I'm managing to do it at all, it's because I'm being both more honest with myself and others--and more forgiving of myself and others, recognizing my petty judgments of others for the ways they mirror my own weaknesses, speaking up and out even when it feels strange to do so, owning the ways I often keep the world too small and too safe for fear of doing the brave thing because of how easily it might just crash and burn.  

When I really get honest with myself, and when I try to act as well as think, I have my best and only chance of being my best self. Furthermore, I get better at consoling myself because I stop focusing on the ways I've felt misunderstood, neglected, unappreciated, or lacking in capacity to reach in and beyond myself. And once I feel that I'm "right-striving" and "right-consoling"--I'm able to walk into the field unapologetically, even when my steps are uncertain. Sometimes I can speak up, and sometimes I can't. But sometimes I can. It's enough to make me feel hopeful.

Recently purchased new year's cards
L'shanah tovah to all of you who are reading this, regardless of what you believe and celebrate. May a happy, healthy new year lie ahead for you, and may you easily walk in those fields and forums where you feel loved and held, and challenged to be your best selves.

* Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print.
** I blogged about this experience in September of last year:  <>
*** Screen shot from Boston Globe Review; the painting is called "Winter Garden": <>. 
**** "Van Gogh and Nature." Exhibition. Clark Art Institute, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2015. <>.
***** I can't say for sure if this is the exact painting that I saw, or that it is called "Wheat Field Behind Saint-Paul Hospital with a Reaper": I do know that Van Gogh painted this scene many times and that I tried to choose the online version that I felt best represented the foreground as vibrantly gold.
****** Screen shot of image on <>; "Wheatfield with a Reaper" is the title of this painting.

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful. Vision and insight. Thank you for sharing. L'shanah tovah.