Shofar Part 2: The Freedom of Heartbreak

Tonight begins Yom Kippur. Already it is ten days since the wake-up call of Rosh Hashanah, and the call of the shofar becomes more urgent. Tomorrow is the last day before the year turns. The month of Elul for repentance is ending, along with the Days of Awe for more intensively tending to our relationships and making amends. The energy builds to Yom Kippur day, focused on atonement. Communications with people need to be complete. Now we go deeper with self and God, in community, and humble ourselves to that which is greater. In that space, I feel called to make as honest a connection as I can with the force of life.

Weaving Jewish with Toltec (my two spiritual traditions) Yom Kippur is an annual conscious visit with the Angel of Death. The all-day ritual brings attention to the urgency of staying in touch with what really matters, because this day (any day) could be the last day. Pressure builds and the mood turns from joyful to somber, all in a theatrical, shamanic, community effort to help us make that pure connection, each year, from wherever we are.

Ten years ago, feeling miserable and sorry for myself, I received a great gift at Yom Kippur services (thanks to my divorce and words form Estelle Frankel). The teaching of opening stayed with me and established Yom Kippur as my favorite day to have a broken heart.

Right before YK that year, after many months of negotiating, trying and advocating for my partner to believe that our relationship could “work,” I accepted we were not going to stay together. Acceptance made me soften. Remorse rushed in. I felt acutely the pain of recognizing the ways in which I was responsible for our separation. As one part of me crumpled at the loss, my judge berated me for my misdeeds. Where I had been confident we could work it out, suddenly I was hopeless and contrite. Bottom line: I felt like I could feel really bad for a very long time.

In shul for YK with that emotional baggage, I saw what a massive opportunity was available in forgiveness. I could carry the weight forward for years, or I could shed it before the day was over! A spark lit at the thought that I could step into the next day/year having forgiven myself. Rather than ruling that I should be punished for X number of days, the tradition invited me to round up my energy and atone now.

I worked this challenge as well as I could, circling through layers from apologizing to her at the door of the shul, to identifying and offering forgiveness toward her, and then the hardest part, forgiving myself. The teaching Estelle offered before the sounding of the shofar was to let the shofar sound break my heart; then let that break take me open. I was already so viscerally in heartbreak, the teaching came in perfect timing. Whereas I was thinking I was terrible and that a terrible thing had happened, this perspective invited me to shine through brokenness and grow.

When the shofar was blown, that sound sailed me from pity and self-absorption to inspiration and resolve. A hard experience with heartbreak was what I needed to actually open my heart. For that, I am grateful.

heartbreak flame

Shofar Part 1: Hearing the Call

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, and the beginning of a liminal period: The Ten Days of Awe. At this time the Book of Life is opened, and we want to be inscribed – for a good year, a healthy year, a year where our prayers are answered, another year of life. We have ten days to reflect, check, and triple check if there is anything we need to clean up in our relationships from the last year, before Yom Kippur, the final Day of Atonement, when the book is sealed.

(Something I really love about Judaism is that the “clean up” is making amends with people. The belief is that when our actions harm people, we need to ask them for forgiveness, not petition God to clear our slate.)

Example shofarIn the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is called “The Day of the Shofar Blast.” One mitzvah, or good deed we can do on this day is to hear the shofar, a hollow ram’s horn blown like a conch or a horn instrument. The blasts of the shofar are calls to wake up. They invite us to shake out of our habitual spiritual slumber, reconnect to our source, and recommit to our divine purpose. (Check out a medley of photos of shofar blowers.)

Here is the wake-up call I received this Rosh Hashanah:

It started with the second aliyah, which is the honor of reciting a blessing over a reading from the Torah. At my shul groups of people are invited up to the front to do and receive this blessing. The first aliyah was for people who had volunteered in the community. The second was dedicated to children, with their parents. (For a perfect visual, see Chochmat Halev’s Facebook page.)

As I witnessed the beauty of the crowd of two generations facing the congregation, the animated innocence and exuberance of the younger ones, I began to feel uncomfortable. When I listened inside I heard these thoughts: “I’m not like them. I’ve failed to become a parent or create my family. I can’t join that group, and I’ve really been wanting and trying to.” I witnessed how bad the thoughts made me feel: tears of disappointment, shame that made me want to hide.

I felt myself hardening and separating from all that beauty. Curious, I wondered, “If this is how I’m relating to people, how am I relating to God?”

Inside I heard blame and victimization: “God, you haven’t answered my prayers yet.” This voice wanted to make a case for opposition, but I also felt how much I don’t want to feed that case and confirm an unhappy ending. I want to trust life and move in harmony with how it moves me. Then came the shofar. Everyone who had a horn to blow was up on the stage blasting away in the call and response of words and sounds. During the service a hundred shofar blasts are sounded, interwoven with prayer.

I prayed to open my perspective. I coached myself, “I am like everyone in this room. Everyone knows the feeling of wanting and not yet manifesting, of disappointment, an unrealized dream.” The plaintive cry of shofar blasts reverberated inside the circular sanctuary, spiraling me open with the healing of sound: “I am no different. We are in this together.” The next round of blasts came: “And it’s not work! We are on this playground together. I am just like them and we are playing together.”

Burying My Eggs: A Ritual to Accept Infertility

A good friend of mine terminated a problematic pregnancy, and she wrote about it online in a courageous and beautiful way. Now she is taking a priestess program, which I have been part of for many years, and after seeing one of her mentors recently, she told me, “I’m planning a ritual for the child I lost.”

“I want to hear about it!” I said, “And remind me, when we meet, to tell you about the ritual I did to bury my unborn (and un-conceived) babies.”

My journey with infertility is another story. It was confusing and terrifying – hard to believe I would not continue my line, and terrifyingly sad for quite awhile. Then there was a moment in therapy where I realized I was not going to have babies in this lifetime, and I needed to accept it. I needed to at least begin to accept it. As a woman of ritual, the path of acceptance was certain to include ceremony to help me let go of the hopes and welcome what’s true.

I flashed on a vision of my backyard, and a phrase about “burying a dead baby” or “burying a baby doll.” I stuck with that intuition and arrived at this ritual:

I had eggs – little plastic eggs for stuffing Easter candy, gold and bright pink. I had used them on my altar for fertility. I realized I needed to bury these eggs. I needed to bury my eggs and the babies that they weren’t going to make, along with the hopes and expectations I had held for baby making. I needed to bury the potential that my eggs represented, and make peace with the reality that I’d been born with all those eggs and been releasing them a month at a time for thirty years, and that was all that those eggs were going to do.

I went to the party store, looking for an aisle with favors for new baby parties. Sure enough, there were little plastic packages filled with handfuls of little plastic babies! I chose a bag of teeny ones and a few slightly larger, and drove to the Berkeley hills.

Photo of grassy hillsThere is an easy long hike I take at Inspiration Point that heads far out along a ridge over the San Francisco Bay. There is one particular place where the paved path begins to end, green hills roll out ahead, and cows are usually grazing in the distance. Once when I was there I felt like I was in Ireland, a place I traveled to do ritual with the energies of the land, so I’ve bookmarked it as a sacred spot.

I forged a way across the lumpy terrain, sat down in the grass and dirt with a stick, and began digging and praying. I made a small hole. I packed the teeny babies into the larger ovary-shaped plastic eggs. I laid the eggs in the grave, and buried some of the larger babies too – children I wouldn’t have. I said prayers over them and spoke with Spirit about what was happening, how I was feeling, what I was grateful for, what I wished for.

Of course I cried; grief was present and the reason I needed to be there.  But I also felt satisfied: this morbid action made plain the loss I was grieving, and in its plainness, it satisfied me. This terrible truth, that my eggs will not bear fruit, is my truth, and as I own it, I am more whole. I delighted in that satisfaction, and that I could find, through ritual, the medicine I needed in order to move forward and cross a threshold into becoming the mother I want to be. Now I that knew and accepted that it wasn’t going to happen by pregnancy, I could stop trying against fate and find the flow of my path towards joyful motherhood.

Photo of altar with babies

I kept two of the larger plastic babies, both with red hair (my dream) and brought them home in my pocket to place on my altar.

Within a month, after immersing myself in reading about infertility and other paths to creating family, I knew I wanted to pursue open adoption, and my partner and I chose to sign on with the Independent Adoption Center. We posted our profile and are waiting to become parents.

photo of Cindy and James

You can like us on Facebook and help spread the word that we are looking for an expectant mother who wants to make an adoption plan for her baby.

What I Learned When James Went on Retreat

My partner, James goes on silent retreat every year.  This year he went for a 10-day monastic stay at Spirit Rock. While he was gone I learned a few things about myself.

1. I *missed* him.  We’ve been together for several years, and I hadn’t felt this way before! In the past he’d come home and ask, “Did you miss me?”  Or I’d go away and come back and he’d ask, “Did you miss me?” Often the answer was, “Um, well, I really enjoyed being on my own… and yeah, I did.” But this time the placement of the heart strings must have been different because I missed, and I felt how much I love to share my home with him, intertwine my life with his, be greeted by his enthusiasm, play with his theatrical humor, soak up the nutrients of being held by him, and feel the steady concentration of his yoga or meditation practice.James making funny faces

2. I *trust* him.  Teachers tell us trust is the thing a man wants from his woman. J and I argue about this sometimes, because in my zeal to be efficient, effective, and capable, sometimes my personality doesn’t leave much room for someone else to step in. It’s not that appealing for a man to feel like his woman doesn’t need anything or doesn’t trust him. My learning edge has softening, resting, leaving room for someone else, trusting; these are my opportunities for deeper relationship.

James in handstandWe also have different definitions of trust.  I trust that if someone has shown a particular behavior, that they will continue to show that behavior until they don’t. It’s practical.  If I wish for that behavior to be different, I don’t call that trust, i.e. trusting that he’ll do something he hasn’t done before, that I wish he would do. We disagree on this one. So sometimes it appears that I don’t trust.

When he was gone I noticed I trust his judgment, particularly about setting sane and healthy expectations for my mercurial self.  I was anxious one morning because I had offered to lead a ritual in my yoga community, and stepping forward in spiritual leadership stirs excitement and nervousness.  I could not make up my mind about the plan for my day: “Do I drive or take the bus? Do I leave work early or stay late? Do I take all my things with me or come home to get them?” I hadn’t felt this crazy in awhile, and I realized I rely on James to help me make decisions. I would have asked him what to do, he would have given me a reflection, probably something like, “It sounds like you’re trying to be a lot of places at once; how about you come home before the ceremony.” That would settle it, and my anxiety would quiet.

3. Food tastes better when he’s home. I like to cook a lot, and bringing healthy home-cooked food with me to the office makes me feel rich. So sometimes I prepare food and feel a greedy hopefulness that I’ll get all the leftovers. I thought I’d love to have all the portions to myself, but I cooked a whole chicken and was sad because he wasn’t coming home to enjoy it. It didn’t taste as good without the delight of feeding my love.

4. I didn’t like living alone.  I used to relish living alone, but this time it was like a classic old outfit I’d kept in my closet, and when I put it on again it didn’t suit me anymore. The first day I felt spaced-out and apathetic. After another day of telling myself, “If it’s hard it must be good for you,” I accepted that I enjoy living with people, and I invited a former housemate and friend to join me. I didn’t need to socialize; I just like to share my home with another sweet soul, and I was glad to let my heart have that. We had a good time.

Thanks to a change of routine to open up insight.

Welcome home, James!

Blessing the Wait to Become an Adoptive Parent

Last week was the week before my 44th birthday. I had hoped to become a mom this year. A year ago James and I signed on with the Independent Adoption Center, and it’s nine months since we leaped through the hoops required for us to go into circulation and begin waiting to bring a baby into our family through open adoption. Last week also a baby was born to a Berkeley couple that contacted us in November when they for a few moments considered adoption. (I was especially tickled at the synchronicity of their due date, nine months from when we went into circulation. But after we met them, they decided to parent.)

The arrival and passing of these milestones created rough interior weather for me. I realized I needed to let go of the expectations and hopes that we would be different: we wouldn’t wait long; that a baby would come in nine months and before my next birthday. One night I went to bed inexplicably sad and woke up the next morning feeling exactly the same way. Grateful to connect with a good friend, I tried to articulate what motivated so many tears:

“Sometimes I want to give up; I’m afraid it will never happen. It’s like if it wasn’t in nine months it might not be for three years… I want to know people are with me… I want a ritual… I want reassurance… like when women come together to create a Blessing Way, nourishing an expectant mama on her way to birthing and motherhood… I want a blessing… Oh, it will be a Blessing Wait!”

A wave of calm washed into me, and then happiness and excitement. Soon after I hung up the phone, I poured out my vision into an invitation:

“You are invited to my Blessing Wait… Why: because we are still waiting for a baby… It takes courage, self-love, and fortitude sometimes to keep wanting and believing in it… Please join me to celebrate longing and faith.”

Fortunately I circle with women in several spirit-filled communities, and twenty people responded to my call.

They came and circled me last night on my birthday. We danced to create sacred space and call in the four directions as allies. I shared with them my dream, having written and created a collage to depict my vision of harmonious relationship and joyful motherhood.

picture of collage

Collage dreamboard for “Joyful Motherhood”

I asked for their help: “How do you long for something you really want, and not go into fear or despair? What helps you keep your faith strong?” They gave their insights and so much love. They wrote their prayers to add to mine, for a bundle of reassurance on my altar.

We passed a ball of yarn around the circle, forming a web as each woman wrapped a loop around her wrist (or ankle) and shared what she, as part of my network, offers to me. And, like a ritual often done at Blessing Ways, each woman cut her loop free from the web and tied off a bracelet to wear in support of my dream, until Baby safely arrives. We sat together in meditation, each imagining and holding that the dream had already come true: the longing was sweet, my faith strong, and a baby come to us in right timing, for the good of all involved.

photo of blue thread on wrists
Women sporting blue wrist and ankle bands from the ceremony.

We released the circle and celebrated with sweet fruits and an amazing chocolate cake. I, in my wait, was thoroughly blessed – infused with hope, faith, trust, and care! I couldn’t be more moved or grateful.

Have you heard of the “red thread of destiny?” Typically the yarn used at a Blessing Way is red, but for my ceremony I saw blue. Then I read on The Next Family blog about the legend in Chinese and Japanese culture of a matchmaking god who ties a red thread around the ankles (or fingers) of those who are meant to meet or help each other in some way. In adoption community this reference is used to explain the quality of connection adoptive families feel once they find each other.

I understood: the red thread is for my baby.

Cindy McPherson and James Ryder are prospective adoptive parents who live in Berkeley. Learn more about them (and tell everyone you know that they are waiting to adopt!) at http://www.iheartadoption.org/users/cindyjames or Facebook.