September and Elul are upon us. The bright, dusty light of summer trails off. The wind picks up, and gathers along with it our readiness — or reluctance — to face another year and another reckoning.
Like the leaves tossed about by the wind, we are not asked if we want to participate in the rhythm of the season. It just carries us along. The Yomim Naraim/Days of Awe unfold at their appointed time, sending Jews from every corner of the world to various gathering places to take stock of their collective and individual deeds.
What are we really asked to do? To repent and change. But as longtime addicts to homeostasis, we're reluctant to rock the boat that has carried us, however tipsily, across the water.
One difference, surely, between youth and midlife is that the water we're on now no longer seems like a vast sea. It's a finite shore that we're heading toward. And the longer we stay mired in our old ways, the smaller the chance for a smooth boat ride. In her Rosh Hashanah poem, "Resolutions Before the Gates," Marge Piercy laments the difficulties of change:
"Change prickles the nose/ Risk jump-starts the heart racing/ We like who we are enough/ enough to stay in our dirty stalls sniffing our vices as secretly/ as we sniff our underarms/ How can we let our faults go/ forcing our bones to grow a new way?"
Change sometimes feels so dramatic that we might as well be growing our bones at a new angle. But if we don't address our psycho-spiritual shortcomings now, when will be the time? When we turn 70? 85? A week before we die?
Midlife seems to me the perfect time to take stock of such inventory. Most of us are beyond the throes of child-rearing or career-climbing. We're at a point where we can pause, usually in comfortable surroundings, and contemplate what work still needs to be done in order to bring out our wisest, highest selves.
We've certainly lived long enough to see what our issues are. We're fortunately still young enough to have the energy to deal with them. Shouldn't we be the first ones delving into those Machzors to chant the ancient admonitions? With a clear and abundant list of negative attributes on those sacred pages, we have a guidepost for what needs to be whittled away in order for us to emerge as worthy Jews and citizens.
"Youth is a gift of nature, but age is a work of art," once stated director Garson Kanin. If we take the process of bettering ourselves seriously, it's like chiseling away at a lump of stone until a beautiful form starts to emerge.
It becomes a kind of trade-off. Our youthful beauty, which we didn't really work for, morphs into a more-faded, less-colorful version of itself. But our souls, if we keep tending to them, grow more polished and diamond-like. The light sparkling off them, in turn, becomes a guidepost for those around us, especially those younger and less experienced than we are. We don't get a chance to relive our early days, but we get to be some kind of anchor for those who are still there.
At this point in our lives, so many major decisions are already set. So many roads have been traveled. But if we look honestly at ourselves, who among us couldn't still benefit by being less impatient, less critical or less despairing? Who among us can stand silent in shul during the Days of Awe and think, "This year, I have not sinned?"
We are lucky as Jews to get this yearly chance for renewal. We're even luckier if we have community to stand with and, in unison, try to forge ahead toward that vision of a more-evolved and centered self.
Come, fellow Mid/Yids. The wind carries us along, and the shofar calls to us. Our bones may be less pliable, but we can still push them in the sacred direction of growth.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected]