That’s right, I quit. Everyone knows September is when the real New Year begins, when we start real things, like school. But I quit. I quit school. I QUIT SCHOOL.
Breathe, Liz, breathe.
Is it a coincidence I quit right around the Jewish New Year? While it’s true I’m a Jew – if one of the world’s worst – the fact that my soul’s new year also begins every September, which generally coincides with Rosh Hashana is, I think, only . . . um . . . coincidental.
Or is it?
There are mysteries afoot in my life right now that make me wonder if coincidence is really random -- coincidence itself not being the mystery but mystery’s symptom, its bell.
For instance, I recently moved a bookcase from my side of the bed to the side my lover sleeps on. And I changed its orientation (the bookcase’s, not the bed’s or the lover’s), which had faced into the room but now faces the bed so that one can contemplate all those stories lying in wait, especially on sleepless nights when I am alone.
This new arrangement led to my partner spotting Amnesia by Douglas Cooper, a watershed book from when his first marriage came apart. “I’m amazed you have this book!" he jubilated. "We've read the same book!” he sang out, identifying yet another synchronicity in a growing list of delicious synchronicities, reinforcing what has felt so right, so destined, so homey from the start.
“I haven’t read it,” it pained me to admit. “That’s my shelf of to reads.” How many times had I picked up this book, read the cover jacket, and put it down again because it simply didn’t resonate. This time, I immediately cracked the book to gain insight into my lover – why was this book so significant to him? What I found was my own story. My own story right now, that is. Any other time it would have been a good read but perhaps not a profoundly resonant one. With quitting school just before September, just before Rosh Hashanah, I’m fairly vibrating with Amnesia.
The book is about storytelling. The protagonist splits himself in two, projecting one part as himself-as-storyteller in order to tell himself-as-audience the terrible crimes he committed. Amnesia is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to forget, the stories we tell ourselves in order to remember. It’s the confessionals we tell a listener to relieve ourselves of the burden of shame and guilt, or stories that toss a rope to those in need, or to those we wish to pull into the vicinity of love; it's the stories that serve as mirrors so that we might see ourselves and be seen in order to judge and forgive ourselves in the hopes that we may heal.
Two weeks before reading Amnesia, I had quit therapy-training school. The decision had been painful but, once made, joyous. But not for long. I’m now walking around with deep worry in my heart. If not a therapist, then what, what is my purpose? And what story do I tell others to make this decision make sense, but mostly importantly, what story do I tell myself?
In Amnesia, the protagonist's is so preoccupied with home-life traumas that he unwittingly destroys a woman he loves, and who loves him, much the same way Hamlet's obsession about his uncle destroys Ophelia -- not directly, because Hamlet did not seek to harm her. But he was so hell bent on avenging his father that he missed Ophelia's love altogether. He didn't even notice her.
As September approached, I obsessed about quitting all the things I didn’t want to do anymore (which is kind of what therapy is about: quitting bad patterns that are self damaging).
I quit school because my body felt sick when I thought about going back. And then I quit feeling like I owed an explanation for that decision to anyone, especially to the school. While on this quitting roll, I tried to also quit feeling responsible for people for whom I am not responsible. And I longed to quit avoiding conflict because as much as I hate conflict, I know that whatever disappears from the surface inevitably reappears on a subterranean level and eventually poisons my well.
My quitting obsession transformed me into a cocoon. My mind went numb. Last September, I read a freight train of psychologist, cultural theorists, visionaries, thinkers, and other declarers on the nature of the human condition. I nibbled at a smorgasbord of rational-to-mystical offerings, which left me feeling either empty or full but never really nourished. That was the real problem. I was not hungry, yet I ate. I felt bloated and uneasy in my skin.
Looking back, I wonder if I was trying to put myself into a state of hibernation: consuming in order to conserve. Whatever the reason, I stopped noticing anyone else. My desire to quit became so overwhelming that one day I simply left the table. Burrowing into a tree or underground might have actually served me better since a good depression is rich humus for evolution. But I stayed above ground instead, seeking flat lands. I needed to see the horizon. I didn't trust the dark. I slept with my eyes open.
And the people around me suffered. I began avoiding contact. Even my partner did not get all of me. Friends in crisis could not reach me. Nothing penetrated anymore.
So now I'm growing worried. I'm worried that past events in my life – Andy’s death, for instance – have cut so deeply that I’m not willing to take a deep dive for fear of never resurfacing. I'm worried I've pitched my tent in a daffodil-filled meadow from a sanitary-napkin advertisement in order to avoid the bloody work of digging a foundation.
I'm worried quitting is a form of amnesia, a way to forget things, a way to avoid more mourning.
Two emails arrived this week, however, that have snapped me awake . . .
The first was from a friend with whom I had recently discussed our new beginnings for September, her fall being filled with teaching and getting her long-awaited tenure portfolio ready. But before she could get started, her father required a sudden hip replacement, so she dropped everything and took up residence at his hospital bed located in the “Close Observation Unit.” Feeling helpless, she did the only thing she could do. Closely observed him.
It was not an email she sent, but a story, a true story, a heartbreaking story. I wept. Her drawing of her father haunted me for days. Only now as I write this do I realize what has been pulling at the corners of my psyche: this is the same story of Rosh Hashanah, of Amensia. All three are about carved-out spaces in time when our lives may be in the balance and close observation is the only thing we can do, and also the best thing we can do: a time and place of reckoning with ourselves and our loved ones, a deep-dive exploration into our oceanic sides, our hidden creatures.
The Close Observation Unit is where we wake up to the realities of our lives, where we see how we operate in the world. It's where we open up to our own hidden truths, where we heal and recover.
Rosh Hashanah is just another kind of Close Observation Unit in which God opens the book of life for ten days during which time you get to closely observe (i.e. reflect upon) your sins; and where you get to make amends and then plead your case (i.e. tell your story) in the hopes that God lets you live another year. Since you don't know which fate God chooses for you, all you have left to do is to act in good faith towards yourself and others.
In Amnesia, the protagonist undergoes a long, drawn out Rosh Hashanah as he unearths his wrong doings in the company of a witness (even if the witness is another part of himself) in order to take responsibility for his forgetting, in order to remember, make amends, and heal.
What I find fascinating about this process is that in telling our stories, we reproduce our creator because we presuppose an audience who will hear us and forgive us.
As I look at my friend's drawing of her father, I realize she has reproduced her creator in order to engage in their unfolding story together. Reproducing him is an act of devotion, an act of gratitude for what has been given, such as her gifts and talents, such as her very life. We the children are the lucky ones because we already know the person we reproduce through story telling (or drawing, or whatever form it takes). Our parents did not have that benefit when they imagined us and sought to reproduce us. But our act of devotion is based on a lived relationship, one we have the priviledge of acknowledging. What’s even more lucky for the children is that our relationship to our parents is not the product of our love for and with someone else; it is direct with them. It’s no different to a direct relationship with God. Or with ourselves as the divine.
There is something existential about Rosh Hashanah: the fact of God's will. In other words, you can plead your case through a story, but God will decide your fate in the end. God's will is another way of representing the givens in life that we cannot control. Whether someone loves you, or your fortunes rise or fall, or you get a PhD (or not), you will die. That's a given. Apart from the givens, however, you get to make your own decisions about the rest of your life. How will I choose to be in this world? Bitter and blaming or responsible and grateful? These choices can almost seem like too much freedom. I know it can be overwhelming for me. If not a therapist, THEN WHAT?
What matters, however, is not the answer to that question, but the beautiful freedom I have to choose in the first place. Even to choose to quit. Quitting is just a moment of decision making, and, as such, an act of living and self love.
The second email was from another friend whose father died much more quickly than she or her family can bear. “I’m beyond devastated,” she wrote. “My dad . . .” And I knew exactly what she meant. She had written the only expression possible for such a catastrophe.
For me, this is where surface and depth meet. Where sand whips around my tent reminding me there is no safe space where death won’t take away those I love. This is where therapy begins and ends, where one person tells another person the contents of their heart and other person hears it with all their heart. I wept. And I wrote back whatever support I could offer.
When I admitted to my partner “I can’t do this anymore,” this being go back to school, he said: “Perhaps you want to live on the surface of things right now.”
And that’s why I love him. Because I knew he would reflect me back to myself. He gave me permission to surface, to come up for air, to cease diving into places that were pulling me under at at time when I couldn't bear it.
But also I knew his meaning was double. I knew that he knew the surface would not sustain me, that this was not an end point, only a beginning. That there would be another diving under later, another fall, another September when I could and would decide what’s next. Decide who I want to be; what I want to do. Just not now.
I feel so grateful for the ten days ahead of me when I get to join the ritual of reckoning, of admitting my wrong doings, of making amends, of visioning what is to come, and of being truly present with those I love, especially with my partner, whose preoccupations never seem to obliterate me. He always notices me. I am awash in the way he sees me, through the eyes of love.
In the Close Observation Unit, life becomes simple and clear: the world is and we respond; acknowledgement is love.
So whatever I am right now (or at any time, really) -- whether I quit or stay the course -- there are no perfectly right answers; just close observations.