|Margo, Ann, and Lynn Look Out Toward the Harbor in Castine|
Determined to finish the book before we headed off, I reread the same poem I'd been re-reading for days just because, frankly, it filled me with peace and place envy. I wanted yet again to see what Booth saw, to feel what Booth felt. As a matter of fact, I think I wanted to go to Castine to see if I could feel the power of that place, even if it wasn't my place.
In ten unrhymed couplets, "Before Sleep" recounts the poet's walk down the Main Street hill from his own house to the edge of the harbor late one clear winter night, and then his meditations upon turning back toward the darkened, slumbering town and the familiar human world presented to him by it. No photos accompany the poem, but in the photo on the cover of Available Light, Booth is standing at the harbor's edge on a winter day. I can make the leap easily to imagining him, hands in pockets, standing at water's edge late at night.
Three times in this relatively short poem Booth uses the word "hold"--and that's what got me thinking about that verb in the first place, especially in conjunction with feelings of peacefulness, belonging, and safety. The first two times Booth uses the word, it's in the same line of poetry:
By the time I walk out over the knoll,The first time Booth uses the word, it's a transitive verb: the harbor is quiet and still enough not just to mirror light generally, but to reflect the discrete light of individual stars. The second time, Booth uses it intransitively: the planet remains intact, stays its course, persists as it is trusted to do--and in so doing, reassures us and Booth that we can trust the order of things. All's well with the world.
down the steep Main Street
that dead-ends in the sea,
the village has put out its lights.
The winter stars are turned up over
the tide, a tide so quiet the harbor
holds stars. The planet holds. (102)*
The third time Booth uses the word, when he's more focused on land than sea and sky, he also uses it intransitively:
Whatever I know before sleep
surrounds me. I cannot help know.
By blood or illness, gossip or hope,
I'm relative to every last house.
Before I climb home up the hill, I hold:
I wait for my breath to quiet, breathing
the breath of sleepers I cannot help love.
|Booth's Beloved Main Street in the Light of Day|
So three things have been on my mind since my visit to Castine--which did not disappoint in the least:
1) Particularly after reading Available Light, I've been paying attention to the word "hold" wherever I see it. Sometimes it's a noun--the goods in the ship's hold; sometimes it's a verb--"Hold the fort!" Sometimes it's a transitive verb--"hold that thought'; sometimes, it's an intransitive verb--"the center cannot hold." It's potentially followed by any number of modifiers and prepositions: hold back, hold on, hold still, hold in, hold out, hold up. My generalization after all this hold-noticing is that things that hold touch us, physically and/or emotionally--and things that touch us have power.
|"The only thing stronger than fear is hope."**|
|Margo in front of the Booth House|
Sounds crazy. I know. Obviously, I can't speak with any authority about Booth's relationship with G-d. While he speaks often and reverently of the infinite, Booth never mentions G-d by name. But for me, there's always been a link between place and G-d, just because I have always most--sometimes only--felt G-d's presence in certain places.
My sense of the G-d-place connection has grown even stronger since I read Lawrence Kushner's God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know*** in early July. I've turned to that book often in the last month, September on the Roman calendar and Elul on the Jewish calendar, because the Jewish new year is fast approaching, and teshuvah, defined as returning to G-d, or "coming back to one's soul, one's Divine essence, to one's source in G-d" (Jacobson, 88****) is the order of the day, or month, for Jews. The good news is that G-d is particularly receptive to our efforts to return to HIm during this month. Which doesn't mean teshuvah is easy. It requires a combination of self-examination, mitzvot, and prayer, and I've struggled with one or more of these in different years.
As I've thought about what's been helping and hindering me during this particular Elul, the word "hold" has come to mind often. I've thought about what holds generally and what holds me, what could hold or take hold or take hold of me but doesn't yet (perhaps because I or others won't let it), and what holds me personally back from encountering and embracing my Divine essence and putting it to work for the world and for myself.
While I'm grateful to Kushner's book for legitimizing on some level the connection I feel between G-d and place,***** I'm even more grateful for its words about teshuvah in a chapter that's headed by the words "God is present, even in the midst of evil" (57):
We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done – not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover some good within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil, but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it. . . .How often does one read something that comforts at the very moment that it requires something authentic and difficult? Transformation is harder than repudiation--but there, in the last sentence of the last paragraph, is that word "hold" again. When we open the door to ourselves, we're reminded to greet ourselves with love and compassion rather than disgust and hate. What a relief, even though I suspect I will forever struggle to believe in this acceptance. That's my faith challenge.
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye taught: The essence of the finest t’shuva [turning] is that “deliberate sins are transformed into merits,” for one turns evil into good, as I heard from my teacher [the Baal Shem Tov], who interpreted the Psalm verse “Turn aside from evil and do good” to mean: ‘Turn the evil into good.’ . . .
The conclusion of true t’shuva, of true turning, is not self-rejection or remorse, but the healing that comes from telling ourselves the truth about our real intentions and, finally, self-acceptance. This does not mean that we are now proud of who we were or what we did, but it does mean that we have taken what we did back into ourselves, and acknowledged it as part of ourselves. We have found its original motive, realized how it became disfigured, perhaps beyond recognition, made real apologies, done our best to repair the injury, but we no longer try to reject who we have been and therefore who we are, for even that is an expression of what is holy.
"Red Occasion" by Scott Ketcham*****
We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again; that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again, and thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves. (78-80)
|Ann does some Maine-splainin'|
So before I wrap up this post, please permit one more English-teacher-style digression. My birthday on the Jewish Calendar is 15 Tishrei, the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, often known as the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths, one of Judaism's three pilgrimage holidays. (Booth/Booths--no doubt you see it coming.) As Jacobson explains,
Sukkot ("Festival of Booths") is the name for the . . . [week-long holiday] which is best known for its joy.
During this time, we [many of us figuratively if not actually] dwell in little huts (or booths) with a roof of palm fronds, branches, reeds or bamboo, in which we eat all our meals and conduct all the activities of the day which we would regularly do at home.
These huts remind us of our total dependency on G-d--that our seemingly sturdy man-made shelters are nothing in the absence of His care. (118)
|Not a Sukkah, But Plenty of Castine Sky|
No wonder I feel such kinship with Phillip Booth as he stands beneath that winter canopy of stars that light and bless. It seems to me that I have been given just the right Jewish birthday--one that has everything to do with the positive but not easy challenge of reconciling uncertainty and trust in pursuit of deep, grounded joy and connection. Lucky me to have so many people in my life to go with me, to sit with me in that figurative sukkah, as I wrestle with this challenge and to note and celebrate any progress I make along the way.
Happy 5777 to all of you who are reading this post, whether or not you're celebrating the Jewish holidays. May you feel held and loved throughout the new year, and may you strive successfully to be your best and therefore most satisfied and world-bettering selves. And may we and people everywhere all be inscribed for a sweet new year.
* Braham, Jeanne. Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place. Peterborough: Bauhan, 2016. Print.
** Photograph of poster enclosed in fundraising mailing sent by USA for the UN Refugee Agency.
*** Kushner, L. (1991). God was in this place & I, i did not know: Finding self, spirituality, and ultimate meaning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub.
**** Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print.
***** In his book, Kushner interprets from the perspectives of eight different revered Jewish teachers the words that Jacob speaks--the title of the book [from Genesis 28:16]--after he's dreamed of messengers of G-d going up and down a ladder reaching to heaven. In one place, Kushner explains that "In rabbinic tradition, the Hebrew word for 'place,' makom, is also a name for God" (31).
****** Jacobs, L. (1987). The book of Jewish practice. West Orange, NJ: Behrman House.