Ghosting

“I drove by your house,” Jeff said, “but the light wasn’t on, so I didn’t go in.”

After Jeff died, I left the light on for years. Nearly a decade.

Jeff had hazel green eyes, large and liquid, fringed with thick lashes like a deer. He had sensitive hands, calloused from his love of welding, work, painting, building, creating; but long-fingered and inclined to go in funny muppet-shapes when he was caught up in the description of something that ignited him; I loved him fiercely. I loved him in the blind, all-encompassing way that only young children or parents can love.

He struggled with depression, and I felt he needed me. I was running around the world raw, with no counseling under my belt to teach me where I ended and a person I loved began. So I broke off pieces of myself to try to heal him; I could see his magnificence, and didn’t understand why he couldn’t. To me, that was love- with no end to the love I could give another, not myself.

Jeff’s death was sudden, incomprehensible, unexplained, and cataclysmic to all who loved him. It changed us forever. I am not sure how I interacted with others for about 5-8 years; I hope I didn’t hurt anyone, because I wasn’t even there.

I finally encountered a rabbi in a way that felt like fate; he offered to counsel me, and it didn’t feel scary-he felt like a gentle father figure, so I gratefully opened the painful, acid-burned scar that was a decade of lost love, and asked him for guidance. I knew I needed to regrow my life.

After a year, he told me he was jealous of my ghost, of the unwavering love I had for him, and that he was in love with me. Well, not me – to be precise- he said he was in love with my “light” and my “heart.”

It felt authentic- because never before had I shown anyone my “true” self, the depth of this grief. At the time, I thought my grief was myself. I have compassion for this sweet girl running around the world in need of a counselor, but I wish I could tell her she chose the wrong counselor, and that predators will find people who are shattered, because broken winged birds are easy to catch and keep.

It was an affair; there is no way to gloss that over. Yes, I believed him when he painted a picture of entrapment and coldness, a story of terror and victimization straight out of Castle Otranto; I believed him because my protective instincts were stronger than my reasoning capacities, and I needed to feel like I was rescuing someone.

Not myself. Someone else.

It was a tormented, dramatic and toxic situation. It was harmful to two good-hearted, trusting women. It’s a novel in itself. (reader, I made amends with her as best I could. That awesome, ill-treated woman. I mourn her still.)

And then came the day when the man I had committed to in a (secret) engagement with betrothal ceremony (useful to be a rabbi, I guess?) with religious hoodoo-voodoo that had the added bonus of I’d already bought into the religious trappings with the naive and wholeheartedly I’m-drinking-this-punch commitment of a zealous brand-new believer,

the man I was going to go to nursing school in order to conduct my future life as a proper caretaker for,

swore to me on the Torah he wasn’t leaving me,

kissed me on the lips and said “I can’t wait to kiss these lips again,”

walked away,

cut off his phone line, his email, erased all tracks of himself,

and (I later found out), moved to Bali.

I waited for him, and finally a year later, I cleared myself of the vows I had made. Yes, I was that naive. I am inclined that way still, and have to work hard to break vows, words, ties.
So forgive me if I can no longer believe.

Forgive me if I can no longer leave the light on.

Forgive me if my loyalty now has a time limit.

This heart still runs deep and loyal. I protect it better now. I bestow it better now. I value it more now.

I have had years of counseling now, with two incredible, kick-ass women who have taught me that my life is valuable. That my life and energy and heart are more valuable than anything else, because my life and energy and heart are the only things that are mine. I get to nurture them and use them to create a story with my time here in this life. It’s the only thing of my choosing, the story I write while I’m here, the actions, words and choices I make.

I don’t get to choose for anyone else. That no one else’s life, story, heart or energy comes first, is very foreign to me and extremely difficult. I struggle with it daily.

But two good rabbi-teachers, (one male and one female,) a Maggid-teacher (female) and two life coaches (female) and the aforementioned counselors later,  I have learned how to release ghosts.

Do not carry the departed, no matter in what way they left. The dead would not want you to waste your life carrying them, and the living made their own choice. Let their absence teach you how to live more brightly. Let their absence turn your story into a wing, a torch, a promise.

We’re all going to have to leave, at some point – it’s the deal we make when we come in the door of this life. So don’t waste a moment carrying someone else’s life or leaving.

How magnificently the trees blaze as they let go; I wish to burn as brightly.

Expand into the unknown with fierce courage – it is all we have, and anything else is an illusion.

Ghosting is a choice that says nothing about you or your worth. As Brene Brown says, “We are not here to negotiate our worth with other people.”

For a still-living person to ghost another is a choice they make which expresses their own life story in this world. It has nothing to do with you.

IF they have told you why, learn what you can, know they’re taking care of their needs, and move on. If they haven’t, learn what you can, and move on.

I myself have cut off contact with three people in my life- and I gave them plenty of warning before I had to take that step. I asked for what I needed; I communicated clearly and respectfully. I told them what step I would need to take, and I took it. The behavior was severe and grievous that caused me to choose to leave no door open. There does come a time when we have to “bless and release,” even the Dalai Lama does that.

But people who abandon without the respect of communication? They have chosen to become ghosts, no longer a part of your story. I don’t really feel the need to make any judgment statements about it- just know they aren’t your people, and move on with your awesome life. Don’t leave the light on. Don’t waste a month, let alone a decade.

Mourn, excavate the story of what/who you believed they were, and release. If they have passed away, know that moving forward doesn’t equal forgetting. Grieving is a process of unraveling everything they were to you and knitting yourself back up together again. It takes a long time; it takes love and patience. But while you give yourself that grieving space and time, also release fast! Do the grieving for your own healing, and let them go. You can still love, and let go. Life is waiting for your heart and the light, undimmed, that you alone can give.

Courage

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Soapbox Alert: let me drag out this old, worn box and climb up on it for a minute (or two).

People who are slinging around the words “cowardly” and “selfish” when it comes to suicide…those people lack courage in my eyes. They lack the courage of heart that is also called compassion. Deep compassion can be painful; to face that we don’t understand but can still allow – to say “I don’t know,” and really understand that we do NOT know what someone else’s experience is, and therefore cannot label it and make ourselves more comfortable. Because, let’s face it, we want to KNOW. We write stories about others – we project – because we want the illusion of understanding and control. When really, we have no control in this life. Everything is impermanent, we are going to suffer, we are going to experience loss and sometimes things are not going to be tidy or make sense – it’s the deal we make when we come in the door of this beautiful, painful, messy world.
What do we have control over? Only ourselves. Our actions, our thoughts, our choices, our speech. These things add up to: our learning; the evolution of our own soul during our own journey here in this place, together and alone.

So what is Courage?

Compassion is courage , in my eyes.
Forgiving someone else, truly forgiving (and having the strength to either wipe the slate clean if called for, or maintain any boundaries necessary to protect and honor ourselves) – that is Courage.
Saying “no” with loving energy when we need to honor ourselves and honor another with honesty- that is Courage.
Choosing to live our truth – Courage
Choosing to be honest in word and action, and that means even speaking when we’ve done something hurtful and could avoid conflict by being silent – Courage.
Sticking with a relationship and learning from it, or leaving when it’s truly time to leave – Courage
Remaining sensitive in a world that batters the heart – fighting to keep that sensitive heart open – that’s courage too.

Staying loving and open … the deepest courage there is.

Therefore: whether he lost the battle with despair & bipolar disorder or whether he didn’t and we are jumping to conclusions (because we can’t really know what happened)
Robin Williams was an example of courage, in my eyes. We tend to deify a celebrity when they die – we also tend to vilify them. Why don’t we let a person be a person, and honor their journey & struggle? He was a person who gave other people a lot of himself. Let’s leave it at that. I hope kids and adults alike will learn from how he lived. I hope we will all learn from our own responses, here. While we are still alive, we can learn; it is never too late to make a different choice. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong and choosing to learn – that’s what we are here for.

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Into the Heart of Mourner’s Kaddish

In 2001, someone I loved very deeply died really suddenly. I won’t tell you his age, as he was always mortified about it, but he was very young, in his early 30’s.  I wish you had been able to grow older, mortified or not, dear heart…

I crawled into a cave, and I didn’t accept his death. I kept on with my work, and did not accept his death. I tried having other relationships but was oddly disconnected (to this day, I do not remember those relationships very much at all) and I did not accept his death. JeffreyS

Then followed ten years during which I waited for him to come home. Knowing that when he had had an impulse to talk to me, he had driven by and if the light was not on, he didn’t come in, I left the light on for years.
There were shards of broken glass in my chest for ten long years; I could not breathe too deeply without tears.
And I did not accept his death.

I had a ten-years-delayed “rebound” relationship with the man who had begun grief counseling with me, who saw the raw ugliness of my grief that I had allowed no one else in the world to see, who told me he was in love with me and jealous of a man ten years gone from this world – that relationship taught me a lot and began a process toward acceptance, and very painfully woke my heart up from its long disconnected state,

but I still felt as though I was behind sharp glass panes, utterly separate from people, in a cage of frozen grief.

Last November on the anniversary of Jeff’s death, I decided to say Mourner’s Kaddish for a year. To do something for him, when I could do nothing. To spend time with him in the only way I could. To teach myself to accept and let go.

In the beginning, I felt sheepish about breaking the “rules” — I was not saying Kaddish at the traditionally accepted time — but I knew that on a deep level I needed this if I was ever to move on and heal, and perhaps one day have a healthy relationship. At the same time I also felt a bit of resistance, as always happens when I am faced with “structured religion.”  I felt like I was fulfilling an obligation, following a rule, and that chafed somewhat.

Still, I stood up to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my friend.  Painfully, I said his name aloud for the first time into the still air of that synagogue and something inside cracked open, just a little bit.

Then, there was a lot of grief. A LOT. I said Kaddish in a whisper, unable to speak around the enormous lump in my throat; I said Kaddish with tears flowing in a bitter flood down my cheeks, dripping off my chin and spotting the prayerbook. I said Kaddish and sometimes the grief felt like it was tearing its way out of my body, and I would wrap my head in my prayer shawl in mortification to feel so out of control in the synagogue, in “public.”

But, as a wise friend (a wonderful, supportive fellow Maggid student) said to me once: “if you can’t cry in the synagogue, where CAN you cry?”

I said Kaddish with anger that I was saying Kaddish for a man who had died far too young; I said Kaddish wishing I could go back to that week and help, somehow – living through the “bargaining” stage of grief  (“If I had gone with him, he wouldn’t have tried that drug. If I had not distanced from my best friend in all the world, he would not have felt so alone…”)

I said Kaddish remembering him, with a smile on my lips; I said Kaddish thinking of his family and wondering where they were; I said Kaddish remembering the first time I saw him, in a temper, with a scowl on his face, his skin glowing darkly across the room; I said Kaddish with a small giggle inside, remembering calling my Mother to tell her, “I have met a scenic designer. He is going to be trouble for me, somehow.”
I said Kaddish, and I walked through all our too-brief days together, our lifetime together and apart. I said Kaddish with the taste of our first kiss on my lips, and with the bond in my chest that we had formed, two twenty-somethings who played together like kids, and who always assured each other they’d be married, as soon as they figured things out…as soon as he no longer turned to drugs when he was sad…as soon as….as soon as…

I said Kaddish with compassion for us both, remembering our “dates” to Costco when we were both too poor to go out, and how we laughed until we had tears rolling down our faces, hunched over helplessly giggling and making the most delicious lunch out of free samples…the plastic ring he had gotten from a bubble-gum machine and how he had put it on my finger, and how it was more precious than any jewelry I owned…

I am nine months into the process of saying Kaddish for my best friend and love, and now I realize why the tradition is to say Kaddish for a year after someone has died.

Because at some point, time has done its work; you wake up one morning and realize, saying those same words you’ve said week after week, that a changed heart is saying the same words. The words become a steadfast marker against which you can see your own growth and healing, and as you say yet again the words of Kaddish, the meaning seeps into your bones.

AT first, it’s just the rhythm that is soothing: “…Yit-barach v’yish-tabach, v’yit-pa-ar v’yit-romam v’yit-nasay, v’yit-hadar v’yit-aleh v’yit-halal sh’may d’koo-d’shah…”

It is like a mantra – a heartbeat. The sound of it on my tongue reminds me of the time when I was in Greece for the summer, living on about $15 a week, taking the afternoons to simply float in the sea.  I had met a Polish girl there, and was teaching her how to swim. We lay back in the salty water, floating high in the stillness as the salt held us up, just our ears under the water, faces to the sky…and all I could hear was the musical chime of the rocks and pebbles beneath me as the gentle rocking of the tiny waves stirred them, and faintly, underneath, my own slow, steady heartbeat and the whoosh of the flow and ebb of my own breath in my ears. The water was warm; it was the safest I have ever felt, in the womb-waters of mother earth herself.

That is the rhythm of Kaddish.  It wraps you in its timeless serene acceptance of what is – it rocks you gently, and over the months, its assurance that nothing – no one- is ever truly lost seeps into your bones.

Then, the meaning of the words began to be clear.   (A few translations will be at the end of this post.)

Mourner’s Kaddish is a song of joy –a giving of thanks —  an affirmation of life!

IMG_7067The day that new layer of meaning struck me, as I was saying Kaddish for the thirtieth, fortieth time, I gasped. I knew then that this ancient prayer was not only for Jeff’s soul, it was also for mine. I knew then that this beautiful prayer was telling me that I was not alone (how many people have said Kaddish throughout the ages?) and that I was still alive, and that I must learn

how to live again.

During this 12-month journey, I happened to experience an interpretation of Mourner’s Kaddish that is one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received. I was in the time when I was beginning to feel a beauty and expansion in saying Kaddish; comforted by the rhythm of Kaddish – my grief had worked its splinter-sharp edges to the surface and had been worn into sea-glass by months of tears –

I was serene, aching still, but open; tender new growth had begun to soften the wounded places.  I was at a Rabbi Zalman Shabbaton in Ashland, Oregon, and the Mourner’s Kaddish that weekend was done by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, (“the Kirtan Rabbi”) – it was a kirtan Kaddish.  It was utterly beautiful. (*Is* utterly beautiful, actually: you can find and hear it online, if you don’t have the opportunity to hear it live.)

Also during a Rabbi Zalman shabbaton in the previous year, I randomly met an author, Hyla Shifra Bolsta, who had written a beautiful book: the Illuminated Kaddish.

Through Hyla’s artwork and through Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s kirtan, Kaddish opened before me; I experienced new depths in the magnificent heart of the prayer.

Kaddish is a road through the grieving process: it is a guide. It lets you listen to your own heart and know when it is time to let joy back in; it holds you up like the ocean in Greece held me, telling you, it’s okay, it’s okay, feel your grief, feel it all, you will not shatter.

And then, later: it’s okay, it’s okay, you’re alive and that is wonderful – your beloved is still alive in you.

Throughout the year, I have unravelled every stitch of what he was to me in my life: every bright glance, the funny way he blew his nose, his maddening stubbornness and his sweet, sweet voice; his breathing next to me and the sweet smell of him, that spot behind his ear that always smelled like woodsmoke and sweet meadow; his practical jokes, his quick, stormy temper, and his loyal, gentle heart…his beautiful eyes that noticed everything, and his long, sensitive fingers that sketched the things he noticed with such clarity and whimsy…

All of it has been unravelled, tiny stitch by excruciating stitch, and has been knit back up into myself, over the course of nine months saying Mourner’s Kaddish. All the moments of who we were together knit back into who I am — and suddenly, he was a part of me, not shut out by my grief. The memory of him lived and breathed in me, and I began to feel like he was with me; in my mind I would see his smile when something wonderful happened, and I would feel, suddenly, the warmth of him near. I felt as though I was living with all of my heart, as I never had before.

Surrounded by my community who let me be – who did not judge, who did not need to talk to me about my grief, who just stood with me and once in awhile squeezed my hand or put a comforting arm around me— held in this warm sea of mother earth’s lifeblood, held in the heartbeat of my community, I said Kaddish, and I finally healed.

Ariwildernessillustedited

I finally let him go.

I finally realized that while I loved him with all my heart, that was a gift that made my heart and soul grow larger- there was infinite room in my heart to love again.

I have three months left to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my best friend and love.

I have three months in which my heart might still sting with grief, but it also – so suddenly! even in the next breath! – might be quick and bright with joy….

because during this journey of saying Kaddish for my dear friend, I learned that it is okay to stand there saying Kaddish for him and also feeling the sun on my face. That it is okay to be laughing inside at a funny thing that someone had said just moments before, or to be still feeling elevated, serene and blissful from the prayer service that had come before.  I learned that it is all okay. That I did not need to die when he died. That grief is the deal we make when we draw our first breath here: we are going to love, and we are going to lose people – and we are all going to die sometime.  We will also learn things along the way — and in a way, saying Mourner’s Kaddish for a year cycle is a distillation, a metaphor of the whole journey of a life.

It is a beautiful gift to have this tradition that allows healing and understanding to come.

One of the messages Mourner’s Kaddish held for me was a vision of my future self, who said, “Don’t use up your life refusing to mourn, refusing to let go of those who are gone. Do not carry the dead—we will all end at some point — let their deaths teach you how to live.  Mourn, so you can fully expand into the length and breadth of your days here.”

At the last comes acceptance.  It cannot come at the beginning: there is a necessary process to go through first, and Mourner’s Kaddish is a beautiful guide through that process.

Mourner’s Kaddish interpretation by Rabbi Avram Davis:

(taken from the Illuminated Kaddish by Hyla Bolsta)

Exalted and Sanctified is the name of Loving Kindness in this world.
Created according to the Intention
And may it be established in your lifetime
and the lifetime of the Community
Speedily. Soon. (Amen)

May this name of the Infinite be blessed Forever;
Blessed and Praised, Glorified and Uplifted, Honored and
Elevated.
The power of Chesed {Loving Kindness} is Greater than all
the Hymns, Prayers or Consolations
we can utter in this life.  (Amen)

May there be abundant Peace and a good life for all the community;
for ourselves and all Creation (Amen)

Mercy and Peace sustain us the far heavens,
so may it Be for us, for all the community, for all of Creation

(Amen.)

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Mourner’s Kaddish (Transliteration)

Yitgadal v’yit-kadash sh’mei rabba (Congregation – Amen)

B’allma dee v’ra chir’utei v’yamlich malchutei,

B’chayeichon, uv’yomeichon, uv’chayei d’chol beit yisrael,

Ba’agala u’vizman kariv, v’imru: Amen

(Congregation – Amen. Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’allam u’lallmei allmaya)

Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’allam u’lallmei allmaya.

Yit’barach, v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar,

v’yitromam, v’yit’nasei,

v’yit’hadar, v’yitaleh, v’yit’halal,

sh’mei d’kudsha b’rich hu (Congregation – b’rich hu)

L’ayla min kol b’irchata v’shirata,

tush’b’chata v’nechemata,

da’ami’ran b’all’ma, v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

Y’hei shlama rabba min sh’maya,

v’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

Oseh shalom bim’ro’mav,

hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu,

v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teyvel. v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)