Friday, May 14, 2021

On Paths

 

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Every morning I get up and meditate. 

(Or most mornings, as of last August.)

A rabbi at my synagogue leads a daily meditation on Facebook live. 

Recently, the meditation focused on discipline and limit-setting within humility.

Have the humility to know that you can’t do everything, the rabbi said. 

We often consider limit-setting from the perspective of the actor, the one building the fence or saying no.

Was this the humility to know that life also sets limits on you?


There, meditating, I returned to my lifelong dilemma: How to pursue multiple disciplines, with discipline.

Would a humble perspective say this is impossible? 

Violin, dance, writing, languages, science, running, now Judaism—

Practices all, each with its rituals. 

Perhaps having a practice has become a ritual. 


Now I’m going to services, making challah, reading the Torah portion (usually). 

There was a time when I got up, went to ballet class, went to work, went to bed, and did it all again.

In the dressing room, in my late twenties, I asserted to the ladies changing from leotards into regular clothes that I would one day be one of the old people in ballet class, one of the retirees who dances every day. 

I imagined myself on a decades-long path. Instead, it lasted about a year. 

At a meeting for young members of the synagogue, when asked what I hoped to get out of being a member 

I found myself saying that I hoped in thirty years, when I was an old woman, I would have a community of people I knew and who knew me 

because I’d been there ‘forever.’

I do hope that, but you have to understand, I joined the synagogue two months ago.


The idea that they could continue forever is something I like about rituals. 

My mind flits around the question of how to get my tombstone inscribed with the letters of a Hebrew name 

I haven’t yet chosen. 

I’m early in the process of conversion, and adopting a name is one of the later steps. 

I’m also, I hope, relatively early in the process of living.


I’m on the path to becoming Jewish. I’m studying Judaism. 

I’m also making Jewish practices part of my routine, treading a path that isn’t just on the way to Jewish; it is Jewish.


For a young person, studying ballet is called ‘training.’ 

As a runner trains for a marathon, so a ballerina trains to be a swan, all thirty-two fouett├ęs.

But dance training isn’t just about endurance.

It’s teaching a young body to develop a certain way, like a plant growing along a trellis. 

It’s encouraging and developing turnout, teaching those knees and hips to point sideways. 

It’s making ballet ‘second nature.’

Like a bean that’s climbed a string, the dancer and her training are inseparable. 

Even if the bean could just walk away, if the trellis were removed, the plant would bear its shape.

Training distinguishes someone who studied ballet as a child from one who took it up as an adult

and any dancer from everyone else.

In the dressing room after class, amateur adult dancers transform into gorgeous long-necked people, regal in their clogs.

Just walking down the street, a dancer moves differently 

than someone without that training. 


Why are trains called trains? Is it because they follow tracks? 

They are well trained. 

Being derailed is disaster for a train. 

The train follows tracks—but does it also leave them?


The word for Jewish law is ‘halakha,’ which means ‘the way’ or ‘the path.’ 

The word reminds me of “L’Chah Dodi,” one of the Friday night Shabbat prayers, and with good reason. 

Both “L’Chah Dodi’ and ‘halakha’ relate to a Hebrew verb that means ‘to walk’ or ‘to go.’

When I’m Jewish, will I walk the walk?

Will I follow the paths left by Jewish people over the course of 2,000 years?

(‘Course’ being another movement-path metaphor.)


Halakha is not just a metaphor; it’s a real thing. It can provide guidance to those who seek it.

Likewise, for some people, violating Jewish law is a serious matter.


For me, now, though, halakha is mostly an idea. 

It’s the idea of a path that’s comforting,

and the consequences of straying from a metaphorical path are for me to imagine. 

Nobody is going to cast me out from my kin—an oft-mentioned biblical threat—for breaking a rule.

I don’t believe a Big Bad Wolf is there waiting for me to stray. 


But I may want to follow the path. 

It’s nice to have a path, a well-trodden, clear path, especially when you feel lost 

and every step, every decision, every minute lived feels like hacking through brambles or blazing a trail. 

When life feels like that, there’s something appealing about a trellis. 

And when you’re scared, you’ll try anything to protect yourself, and your loved ones, from wolves.


“Little Red Riding Hood” is a story parents tell their children to teach them, literally, to stay on the path in order to protect them from the dangers of the woods. 

To stay on the path, in the Red Riding Hood story, is to obey your mother, first because the mother told Little Red Riding Hood to stay on the path 

and also because parents’ instructions are the life paths they offer their children, a kind of halakha. 


The Big Bad Wolf, embodiment of parental fear, is at once overblown and tame.

Getting eaten by a wolf on the way to Grandma’s house is pretty unlikely,

but the idea that threats are Obvious, Predictable, and Avoidable isn’t realistic either. 

In the story, the Big Bad Wolf hangs out near the path and targets disobedient children. 

In the wilderness outside the story, all sorts of dangers—cancer, terrorism, coronavirus, rape—threaten people all the time, and doing what’s recommended, while it may reduce your risk, doesn’t guarantee safety.


It may comfort some Jews to believe that being righteous and following the rules will protect them the way that obeying God protected the characters in the Torah, the ancestors, literal or figurative, of the Jewish people. 

I don’t think it will, necessarily. Protection is never guaranteed.

But trying to live a good life is, if nothing else, a way to live a good life.

It’s also an alternative to nihilism and fear.

Hungry animals and people with guns and lethal contagions and genocide will be out there whether or not you’re afraid. Maybe the idea of a safe path offers emotional protection. 

The actual work of following the rules could also serve as distraction from fear and despair, as something to do when you’re not sure what to do. 

I know that’s not the most resounding endorsement.


The Torah cycle is another kind of path. I’ve written before about scrolls and the motion of scrolling, 

on a phone or at the bimah. 

A metaphor that occurs to me now is Torah as treadmill. 

The Torah cycle moves forward through the ages, curling up at one end and unrolling at the other. 

Also like a treadmill, it never stops. It’s easy to fall behind.


I wanted to say that it’s always moving forward, but that’s not exactly true. 

Once a year, during the same service when you read the end of the Torah, you also go back to Genesis, in some cases literally rewinding the entire Torah to get back to the Beginning.

Moses dies, leads the Israelites out of Egypt, waits in a basket; Jacob wrestles with God; Abraham doesn’t kill Isaac, leaves his father’s house; there’s a flood; Adam and Eve eat the apple; and then the apple is whole; and the earth is “unformed and void.”

Jews get to return to the beginning of time and start again, through the Torah reading, every year. 

This is wonderfully appealing


because a metaphorical path requires a metaphorical destination.

Where does the halakha lead? 

When I think about the destination of my life, I think about death. 

My dad once told me that he used to think about time as a conveyor belt carrying him closer and closer to his death.

Life as treadmill, moving one direction only. 


Or does it move in a circle, like a model train, like the hands on a clock?

Judaism likes to talk about birth and death as ‘life cycle events.’

Although the idea of life as a cycle isn’t unique to Judaism. Biology is full of circular diagrams in which egg leads to offspring leads to egg leads to offspring. 

I personally haven’t done what it takes for life to feel cyclical. I haven’t had a child, ensuring that some part of me will start again from the beginning and, hopefully, live on after I die. 

I haven’t transformed from child into mother, passing on the wisdom my mother gave me about wolves and manners and responsibility and love. Nor do I teach kids or young adults. 

It would be nice if future generations read and learned from my writing, but I’d rather the meaning of my actions didn’t hinge on something so grandiose 

and out of my control. 

Though there are things within my control that affect future generations. 

There’s something to be said for not littering on the path, even if you don’t set a little one down at beginning of it. 


You could say that my interests take me from one path to another,

In ninth grade, I cut down on my dancing in hopes of getting further along on the violin.

Rather than taking two paths at once, I thought I’d travel twice as fast along one.

But I didn’t become a professional violinist, nor did I try to when the time came:

I studied biology in college.

You could say that I never get very far along any path because I keep switching.

You could say that if I’m trying to get somewhere, I should go straight, make a beeline. 


But you could also say that I’m making my own path through life

And that because my journey defines the path, of course I’m on it.

(‘Of course.’)

As for going straight and “getting somewhere,” well,

If death is the destination, I’m in no hurry to arrive.   


And yet death preoccupies me.

as does old age. What will I be doing in my sixties?

Will I be dancing? Will I be writing books? Will I be able to retire, if I want?

Or will I be struggling to pay rent writing articles for fees whose value decreases with the passage of time?

Will I feel part of a community? Will I be Jewish? Will I have a partner? 

When I die, will someone be there to witness it? To write the obituary and order the tombstone?

There’s a fear of being found dead, days later.

When I die, will anyone care? Will the people who care know?


I hope these questions communicate something.

It may be all well and good to make your own path, 

but that doesn’t mean ‘everything will be okay.’

It might be. It could be.

 

If it’s any consolation, if and when I’m in my sixties, it will be the present tense, a continuation of now, 

And I have agency, now. I can walk, ‘take steps,’ as they say 

(though I remember a friend praising me for ‘taking steps’ to reduce my stress by stopping violin lessons, and I’m not so sure those were the right steps to have taken)

to try to answer my questions for myself, the way I’d like them answered. 


Time does pass. The earth does convey us, round and round. But we aren’t passive, not just passengers.

A path is something you can follow or that you can make. But for the path to be worn, for it to look like a path, it has to be walked more than once, likely by multiple creatures. Merriam-Webster’s defines path as “a trodden way.” 

It’s not one or the other, leaving or following. 

A person on a path isn’t alone 

even if, at a given moment, there is nobody beside them.

They are likely following in someone’s footsteps, and they are definitely leaving footsteps behind.  


I’m bad at physics, but I remember that 

an object moving in a circle, orbiting, isn’t moving in a circular direction. 

The direction is always an arrow, straight ahead, it’s just that the force at the center of the orbit 

gravity

constantly changes the object’s direction so that a series of straight paths becomes a circle. 

Maybe we living things are not trying to move in circles, or go straight, necessarily; we’re just moving forward

and at the same time life pulls on us

and we go where we go.

There’s humility in that.