Saturday, September 16, 2017

Wild Geese in This Season of Return

So already, my spiritual preparations for the Jewish high holy days have been very difficult this year. As in other years, I've been using Simon Jacobson's 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays* to guide my "'month of accounting" (12), [my personal journey of return to my] true self and the spark of G-dliness at the core of . . . [my] soul" (9).

So much of this month, I've felt supremely out of step with 60 Days' compassionate challenges, disinclined to strive to reconnect with the part of G-d within me. And no more so than one day last week when the focus of the day's reflection was "inner holiness." As the text explained, "The challenge is to recognize the holy part of ourselves--which resides deep on the inside--and to allow it to shine on the outside" (38). 

"Hurricane"** by Winslow Homer: Category 1?
But with the ravages of Hurricane Harvey still fresh and Florida and various Caribbean islands gearing up for the ferocity of Hurricane Irma, my sights were set on outer clouds, not inner lights. I couldn't tear myself away from the television as the evening news chronicled the fear and suffering of people contending with just-past and anticipated hurricanes, President Trump's DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) decision, and North Korea's predicted but unknown escalations. While my sympathy and worry were genuine, I knew they were much less intense than the fear and anxiety of those whose lives were being directly affected and potentially transformed by the week's events.

I understood that I could have begun seeking my inner holiness while those on the news watched the bumpers of the cars in front of them in the northbound lanes of Florida's Route 1 or waited endlessly on phone lines to learn how likely they were to be deported and when. I also knew my bearing television witness wasn't at all helping them. Still, I kept my attention on them because to have to turned it toward my inner holiness at that moment would have felt like turning my back on them.

In truth, nowhere does 60 Days entreat us to forsake the outer world for the inner world as a general practice; if anything, the message is the essential connection of the two because a strong, maintained connection to the inner Divine should help to guide the repair and healing of a broken outer world. But on that day when story after story featured others' panic, anguish, and resignation, putting the inward before the outward would have felt like an indulgence. I can imagine that those far Jewishly wiser than myself might have extolled the spiritual and real-world power of bearing witness through a window framed by a connection to my inner holiness--an enlightened preparation for entering the world outside the window to respond to its people and needs. Still, characteristic of the teshuvah resistance I've been feeling since Elul began, I wasn't having it.***

When I woke up the next morning, Mary Oliver's  "Wild Geese," a poem I've always liked and admired, came to mind--but without its usual uplifting assurances. "You do not have to be good," begins the poem. Of course you do, I said to myself as I lay in bed. That poem doesn't suffice right now, given the political and natural exigencies of the present, I thought to myself; maybe no poem is right for every moment. So I began crafting a poetic response to it better suited to the moment. It includes a few lines (italicized) from Oliver's poem and preserves its basic structure. So with both gratitude**** and apologies to Mary Oliver, I share "Wild Geese September 2017": 

    You do not have to have to be good,
    though doing good would help.
    And while parched repentance
    is not required of you,
    imagining the woes of those who chose desert over death,
    who trudge spent across this battered planet,
    might compel you to act.

    I could tell you about my despair--
    but dwarfed as it must be 
    by that of the sea-ravaged, the expelled, 
    the undocumented, the death-threatened,
    toward what end?

    Meanwhile, the world 
         goes on, precariously.
    Meanwhile, the sun and 
         veils of rain 
    spreading across the 
         meadows and the 
    the coral reefs and the 
         barren peaks,
    are moving also across  
         the multi-storied  
         buildings and 
         makeshift camps,
    the shaded caverns and 
        the sweltering 
    Meanwhile, somewhere, observed or unobserved,
    in the V formation that always
    brings the whole flock home,
    the wild geese are making their journey,
    embodying the right order of things
    lost often in a world where nature yields to human wills.

    Whoever you are, whatever you wonder,
    the world cries out to you,
    strident some days as wild geese,
    reminding you of what's broken and lost,
    rekindling your sense of kinship and common destiny.
    Claiming you as its own,
    it embraces you,
    and asks you to do good
    so it may always hold you fast.   

The day after I wrote the first draft of the poem, I went back to 60 Days and my stiff-necked spiritual preparation. References to Psalm 27, the psalm most associated with this penitential season and read daily by many, sent me back various English translations of it by Reform rabbis and poets. I found the language to describe my fractured, distracted state in Rabbi Yael Levy's version of it:
There is so much to lead me astray.
Don't let me give in to all that torments me,
the lies, the illusions, the menacing threats.
I must have faith that I can see through all of this
I can see the good, the blessings, the ways of life.
Cultivate hope in the Infinite Presence.
Let your heart be strong and filled with courage.
Cultivate hope.
My challenge is not to let the world's abundant "menacing threats" be all that I see and all that I believe is important. Menacing threats have always been, and it's important to perceive them and fight against them. But they--and suffering--are not all there is, though they must be attended to. With this insight, I think I began my return to return, all the while grappling with what my response poem should say.

Sitting in my dining room amidst the detritus of revision on Friday afternoon, I suddenly remembered that I'd written a poem about wild geese years ago--when I lived in Cambridge and habitually walked around Fresh Pond. I found it in  a thick folder of poems I've been accumulating for years.

from the Fresh Pond Golf Course Web Site*****
    So early one September 
    That sun and moon both 
         claimed places in the 
    A vee of geese
    Boldly announced its 
    Across pond and then 
         golf course--

    And must have roused the 
    Whose bedroom windows 
         inclined towards
    The idle greens and fairways.

    Overhead I saw them:
    An airborne choir of shofars
    Proclaiming in strident counterpoint
    The Day of Judgment
    Or the end of summer
    Or the dawn of the fourth day.

    It was good.   

Now these were the wild geese that were announcing everyone's "place/ in the family of things; their "harsh" cries were inviting, rousing, "exciting." The poem, which I know I wrote before 2000, before 60 Days, seems so innocent right now. But it's good to return to it and be reminded of my capacity to "see the good, the blessings, the ways of life."  Innocence mustn't be a condition for recognizing  and cherishing wonderful moments; if anything, we need them most when our knowledge and experience incline us to despair. That said, the me that seized that moment years ago and turned it into a poem feels like another self this September.
My resistance to "return" is slightly mediated right now. There's some blue sky amidst the clouds. But this softening may be all the spiritual progress I'll make this season. I will try to reach toward my inner light in the days ahead, though I suspect it will stay largely hidden from me this year. And I will try to cultivate hope by by seizing this moment of spiritual softening and by watching and listening for blessings, such as wild geese. About you, I am most hopeful. May you be inscribed for a sweet new year.
* Jacobson, S. (2008). 60 days: A spiritual guide to the high holidays. New York: Kiyum Press. 
** On Tumblr: 
*** I have nothing against holiness or G-d, even though I've struggled to approach Him during this month.
**** As grateful as I am to Mary Oliver, I am also tremendously grateful to my fellow South Shore Scribes, who urged me not to give up on my poem and coached, challenged, and advised me as I wrestled with it. They are a wonderfully enthusiastic and helpful group of fellow writers.


  1. Joan, I can't express how much I like your post! And I love how even in your choice of pictures, it went from duller to brighter days. It is so encouraging to read blog posts about matters that can so often be overlooked. Thank you so much for your post!!

    1. Hi, Guernleye--

      So glad you enjoyed reading my blog post--and that you thought the photos worked well, too. I knew that we both cared about spiritual matters, but I didn't know that both of us paid a lot of attention to geese, which are also pictured on the homepage of your web site:

      Thanks so much for reading and responding!