Sunday, July 14, 2013

road trip

I awoke this morning dreaming I was heading out on a spontaneous road trip, all by myself. The destination was not clear, but I was not concerned. It was about the journey, after all. I hadn't even packed a suitcase yet, was thinking about the route, and how soon I could hit the road.

When my mind became more aware, I had a strong urge to write it down and immediately, I connected it to a journey I've been on since last fall.

In October I was turning 50 and I was preparing the music and sermon for my synagogue's biannual women's retreat. Hitting menopause I had been feeling like my voice was changing and I indulged in some voice lessons for the first time in my life. I dug deep into the music, I dug deep into the Torah. My enjoyment of the process started to blossom. I was singing Jewish music night and day. I was reading and thinking about Jewish texts, I was peeling back layers, I was writing and questioning and discussing something intellectual and spiritual. I suddenly became aware of a new desire in my heart.

Not coincidentally, the theme of our women's retreat was "Liminal Moments," threshold moments, doorways of time and space, emotion and experience. I was turning this over and over in my mind, reading about transitions, writing about those doorways in my life which I'd already walked through.

In addition to all that, at the same time I was also taking an online course called Cultivating Courage, taught by the amazing and wonderful Andrea Scher. 30 days of Courage. "One conscious, brave choice every day -- for 30 days." 30 days to put on my Wonder Woman cape and flex my courage. I took it to heart. I was so brave that month.

And by the time the women's retreat came, and went, I had a whole new plan for myself. I wanted to be a Jewish spiritual music leader. I was headed down a new road with a very new sense of myself, what I could do, and who I could become.

I've been a Jewish songleader ever since I first owned a guitar 33 years ago. I don't even remember why they hired me, but when I graduated from high school I was asked to be the music teacher at the secular Jewish school, Sholem Educational Institute, at which I had been first a student and then a teacher's aid up till that point. The guitar was a present from my parents for my high school graduation. I began taking lessons that summer. By September, I knew about 5 chords and was standing in front of groups of kids and parents leading them in song, as I recall a fairly even mix of Yiddish folk songs, Negro spirituals and Bob Dylan. "The Garden Song" by Arlo Guthrie was also one of our favorites.

Throughout the next 33 years my guitar was often in my hands as I led singing at that Jewish kindershul and another, in my elementary school classrooms as I ventured out into the world as a grade school teacher, in all three of my children's preschools, at yearly family Passover Seders, on family camping trips, and at our synagogue's religious school. When, a few years ago, I took a break from teaching music at Hebrew school, my guitar sat quietly in a corner of the living room. I didn't take it out much to play. It was the first time in years that I'd not had calluses on my fingertips.

But last fall, on the brink of my milestone birthday, the potential beginning of a new period in my life, my guitar came out and I opened my mouth, and my heart, and something really surprising emerged: a deep inner spiritual expression of myself.

What I started to appreciate was how I felt differently when I sang Jewish music, Hebrew lyrics, really Hebrew poetry and prayers as opposed to folk songs, pop songs, other music. Not that that music can't lift your spirit or touch your soul. Absolutely, it can. But there was definitely something different in me and coming from me when the music was Jewish.

At the retreat, I was seen and also saw myself as someone who could do this. Could create a soulful experience for others. With my music and my words I reached into hearts and souls. Women were embracing me, were crying, were smiling and thanking me for helping them to feel deeply in those moments. The pleasure I got from that was immense. It wasn't a surprise, I had been leading music for over three decades, but the spiritual part...that was new.

I wasn't even sure how to couch this new-found belief. It felt like a spark, a knowing. It was deep inside me and didn't fit easily into the words we have for it: God, soul, religious. Meh. Those words just don't express what I was experiencing.

I have always had a strong Jewish identity. It went beyond beliefs. It's about a history. A common thread. A tribe. I am very tribal! But the God part was not comfortable or even familiar to me. I didn't just accept the idea of God without a trial. That kindershul I grew up in was secular. It was Judaism without God. Jewish history, culture, music, food. It was good for my realist and rational thinking parents, and at the time it was good for me. But the miracles were all explained away. The mysticism was not there.

Through the years I've questioned and questioned. I've felt uncomfortable at services. All that praising of God! I even felt uncomfortable singing and teaching religious Jewish music when I first became the Hebrew school music teacher nine years ago at our synagogue. It was something I did, but it wasn't a perfect fit.

And then suddenly, last fall, turning 50, feeling brave, and taking on the job of leading services at the retreat, I noticed the feeling was different. There was less struggle and more flow, less questioning and more knowing. Suddenly there was a sense of God within me, unfamiliar and yet familiar. (And after 50 years of being unsure, it is not easy to change one's ways. Even now I hesitate to put it out there lest someone think "She believes in God!")
There's definitely a place or a need and a want in my heart for holy thinking, sacred space, the unknown and unknowable. 
And yet I can't deny that I now feel there's a place for those miracles and for the kind of thinking that accepts the possibility of miracles. There's definitely a place or a need and a want in my heart for holy thinking, sacred space, the unknown and unknowable.

So I stepped onto that path. After the women's retreat there was a sense that I was going to do this, to lead people spiritually with my guitar, my voice, my presence. Oddly, there was a hole that had opened up at the same time at our synagogue when the week before the retreat they had let the new cantor go, suddenly, only 3 months into his contract. Many people looked to me and asked, "Can you do this? Do you want to do this?" and my answer was "Yes!" But that was not to be. There is, apparently, a protocol, there is a process, and there are a lot of rules at our synagogues in general? I am naive, it was not as simple and clear as I thought...We have a need, I have a voice and a desire, an ability.

Leading music at Kindling the Spirit.
I'd like to say they, the synagogue leadership, opened their arms to me, delighted that my personal epiphany was timed so right for the sudden musical vacancy on the bimah (stage). But they didn't. They actually seemed fairly threatened by my confidence, my passion to sing and be a spiritual leader, and unfortunately, they were pretty negative. (Why? I don't actually know. Only conjecture.) Over the months they've come around a bit, and I've had the opportunity to lead several services there.

But something better came out of the retreat. Two friends of mine, Barbara Hirschfeld and Margo Miller, one a Hebrew teacher and Torah and Jewish prayer scholar and one a meditation teacher, came to me and asked me to collaborate with them. We sat down a few months later to create a program called "Kindling the Spirit: Exploring Judaism through Meaning, Music and Meditation." Margo takes a phrase or a word from Jewish texts, prayers, the Torah and then unpacks the wisdom and meaning in it. Then I pull in music, some new, some old, some I even have written (yes, I've even started to write Jewish music!) for the occasion that helps us to connect the text to a musical expression. And Barbara leads us in meditation focused on that theme, that new understanding. It's powerful and beautiful stuff. The collaborating is incredible. We teach in Barbara's gorgeous meditation center, Open Sky Retreat Space. We are a wonderful trio together. And we have a following now, people, not just Jewish people either, who are seeking more meaning and more meaningfulness in their connection to Jewish teachings. That has been an incredible experience, a blossoming of our passions together, and a path I never considered was there, was viable, was possible. We have taught several workshops already and have more planned for the coming new year. And we were recently invited to bring our workshop to our synagogue...and share our wisdom there. Huh!

We brought Kindling the Spirit to our synagogue this month.
Barbara led me to another connection..."You should talk to my friend Lorenzo..." and so I have also started to collaborate with a wonderful guitarist and composer, Lorenzo Valensi, who leads music at another local congregation, Ner Shalom. I've been embraced there with open arms. It's a really positive and moving experience to sing with them.

Singing my own music at Hava Nashira's open mic night.
In May I attended Hava Nashira, the Jewish songleaders' conference in Wisconsin. And in June I attended a 4 day intensive program with Joey Weisenberg, a terrifically talented and inspiring musician. I feel like I'm a pot under a spigot, filling to the brim. I'm taking it all in...processing, learning, sharing, bursting with spirit and passion for this music and learning.

There have been periods when I felt that I needed some concrete idea about where I was headed. I think we're accustomed to that type of thinking. "Oh, you can do ________, then you must be a __________." I lead Jewish spiritual music, then I must be a cantor. That type of thinking made me feel quite insecure. I mean, how does one do that when one is settled and not planning on moving, and there's only one cantorial position in the immediate vicinity...and they're not offering it to you? And also, is that the only way to lead Jewish spiritual music? From a bimah? On Friday nights or Saturday mornings?

Well, no. Clearly, being a cantor is one thing that I could be. But it's not the only thing. Once I released myself from that type of thinking I relaxed.

Two weeks ago I brought my guitar to my aunt's deathbed and sang to her, and family and friends who were gathered there. She was in hospice care, failing, practically unresponsive. And then we sang. We sang for over an hour and she opened her eyes. She listened and was present, in some way, for that music. When I was leaving I went to her, kissed her good bye and said "I'm leaving." "Where are you going?" she mouthed to me, the first sentence she'd uttered in days. I came back the next day to sing again.

The path, this road trip...where is it leading? There have been periods where I've thought I needed to know, but I don't feel that right now. I am creating my own opportunities to share my spirit. And as in my dream this morning, I guess I just need to get out on the road. The path will lead me where I need to go.


Kathleen said...

wow what a blessing to be able to watch this beautiful "breaking open" happen, my dear friend! love you oxo

Denaire said...

You have been such an inspiration to me and others. We are so blessed to have you in our lives. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

Barbara H said...

Glad to see my snapshots put to some good use. Glad to be a witness to your evolution. Glad you tapped me on the shoulder at High Holidays and said, "come to the retreat, I'm leading the service, it will be on liminal moments." Looking forward to the next turn in the road.

Anonymous said...

I admire your courage. Though I see individual circumstances aligning in my own life for more 'Sisterhood' work (as I call it) and less old hierarchical energy, the old fears are still there about being 'different'. The connection to God is well-discussed and embraced in my own sphere of friends, but the courage to truly forge ahead where I'm lead still amounts to tiny baby steps ;D I'm inspired though by hearing your story, and believe that even tiny baby steps will keep me walking in the right direction ~ thank you for sharing that Susie <3