Friday, February 18, 2011

Beit Mikveh

"It was a time in my life when many things bored me deeply and I hungered for beauty and those realms of pure elation granted to those who had the imagination to know what to look for and how to find it."--Pat Conroy, Beach Music

Written well over a year ago, my last blog post culminated the end of an era while serving as a commencement ceremony of sorts to this present tense.

Three months prior to this, I woke up one morning in Jerusalem and realized that it was time for me to retire from my self-imposed flying circus. In my effort to live in a state of unfettered freedom, I realized that I was well on my way to becoming unhappy and enslaved to my own cliche. The whole affair simply wasn't serving me anymore. All of my hopes and fears had oddly become prostate to the process of being and becoming, which made my life at that moment feel as though it had become redundant, inauthentic and admittedly trite. That particular morning came with the sudden realization that what drove me across oceans, deserts and intellectual canyons was out of my deep longing for a place to be at peace. I woke up knowing that none of this was enough to silence the ache inside of me that had been simply muted by the stimulation of adventure and the noise of the fast lane and a long standing denial of my obviously flawed logic.

Hours before this realization, I ended yet another love relationship in the desert. It was a rather empty and dispassionate termination of affairs. Our matter-of-fact exchange was a stark reflection of how falsely hollow the brief affair had been in the first place. I knew this was not the man for me, yet the act of issuing yet another note of dismissal made me feel anxious and ill late into the night. It certainly wasn't that I was sick of men, but I was sick of the wrong men. More than anything, I was sick of the story of me and all the wrong men. It was boring me to tears. Literally.

Up all night, mentally spinning in full insomniac mode, it was close to morning when I received a call from a good friend in the US, who told me that my former love partner--the rabbi--had become engaged to his girlfriend earlier that evening. With this news, my night of solemn contemplation was suddenly punctuated by the tearing down of all of the sclerotic scaffolding I had constructed over the year in my ardent efforts to move on and "heal" from the once extremely destabilizing dance of what had once been nothing more than a misspent menage-a-trois between me, the rabbi and his mental illness.

Of course, my response was to simply dance with this knowledge and the deep sense of frustration that erupted within me. Yet in that moment, I knew that it was time to start choosing toward a new way of being and, inevitably, a new life.

A week passed, and after the next sabbath, I decided to do something a bit unique. In order to put my decisions into action, I decided to make my passage into the next phase of my life through the symbolic act of rebirth. I made an appointment with a local women's mikveh in the conservative side of town. Like a spa, a mikveh is a rabbinically ordained pool of rainwater in which Jews go to submerge themselves. Symbolic of birth, the process of submersion itself is significant to a spiritual cleansing.

The female attendant at the mikveh was an Orthodox woman. When she greeted me at the door, with a quizzical look. Despite my attempts to dress conservatively, the woman took one look at me and demanded to know why I was there. With no premeditation, I swallowed the lump in my throat and told her that I was "getting married". Clearly skeptical, the woman held the door for me to come inside.

This wasn't my first visit to a mikveh, but since I told the woman that I was a bride, it was necessary for her to treat me with greater scrutiny according to the Orthodox way of handling these particular rites of passage. After removing my contact lenses, all traces of makeup, showering thoroughly, brushing my teeth with Kosher toothpaste, flossing and cleaning my ears and under my nails, I stood shivering in a white crusty towel in front of the square woman who inspected me in a very businesslike manner. Taking my hands, she proclaimed that my nails were too long. She reached into her pocket for a pair of unsterilized clippers and began cutting. Then, with a pair of little scissors, she proclaimed herself the halachic harnesser of my cuticles.

After what felt like endless rounds of snipping and clipping at my hands and feet, the mikveh lady finally approved me for submersion. Standing over me as I dropped my towel and entered the water, she told me that my eyes were closed too tightly, that every strand on my head was not fully emerged, and then, that my legs were somehow too close together. She told me that if I did not do these things according to her instructions, I would not be spiritually cleansed for my husband. Completely naked in the water before her, I felt suddenly emboldened. I listened to her instructions, and then I asked her to leave me alone in the room to do the rest by myself. She resisted a little, and I told her that if she didn't leave me to do as I like, I would go back to my new husband without "toveling" and it would be all her fault that I was "impure". Through very thin, pursed lips, she told me that I had 5 minutes to do what I wanted and she would return.

Alone in the water, I dunked and dunked as a memory from childhood suddenly surfaced in my consciousness. It was the memory of learning to swim with my grandfather in the deep end of a pool. G-d rest his soul, I realized that my grandfather had given me many more tools for survival than just learning to swim. "Let's get lost today," he would say to me with a wink during the summer when I was learning to drive a car. The game of "Getting Lost" meant taking long drives together through the countryside so that my grandfather could treat me to an ice cream sundae and instruct me on the ways of paying attention to landmarks in order to find my way out of any situation. As I dunked, I could hear his voice saying to me, "You are never lost in life if you are smart, honey. Pay attention to the signs around you and you will always find your way home."

Suspended in this tiny reservoir of Jerusalem's coveted tears, I knew that I was paying attention to the signs. Taking a deep breath and stayed suspended under water for as long as my lungs would allow as I paid attention to the sound of my heartbeat my body as it floated in the water. Against tradition, I opened my eyes and thought of myself in the womb. Then, after uncurling and saying the ritual prayers of the mikveh in Hebrew, I told myself that while I was not getting married tomorrow, I knew that this was the first step in my path to this next phase of my day.

Perhaps inevitably, a rejection in life is a tacit acceptance of what is to come. Moving inward, I rejected all of the fears I had of settling down and, worse, settling down with the wrong person. And yes, I knew that I was listening to myself and reading the signs. Rejecting the fears and irrational aches that had long haunted me, I was finally putting my past to bed in acceptance of the things to come. The motions of coming and going had become such a mundane routine in my life. But this time I knew that I was finally coming home.


hannahjustbreathe said...

I read this with suspended breath. I know the next chapter of this story--how things turned out, if you will--but I hope you tell us that story, too. Because this post is like an appetizer---I am still hungry for more.

Beautiful, friend.

Test said...

I always had this idea in my head that you'd travel the world forever. Wherever you end up, I know it will be in happiness.

I-66 said...

I always had this idea in my head that you'd travel the world forever. Wherever you end up in settling down, I know you'll be happy.

Kim Ayres said...

Wishing you all the best for the next stage of your life :)