I spent yom kippur reading a self-help book. It's not what I planned to do, but the cantor at the shul I went to for kol nidre said some offensive things about Arabs and Muslims, and I walked out. That made it so that I didn't spend erev yom kippur in the kind of self-reflective accounting I usually do, going over those words again and again and again, remembering the ways I had acted less than ethically. And so when it came time to go to the beach the next day (as we salty New England Jews have sometimes been known to do on yom kippur) I was in a different reflective place than I had expected to be.
I decided that I wanted to tackle the indecision that has plagued me over the past years. I had a book with me that I bought two or three years ago, on a topic that I've been needing to address for at least that long. And without going into too many of the personal details (it is a SELF help book, after all) I used it as my makhzor (prayer book) all day long. I fasted, I went for beautiful walks, I made it to the beach for a couple hours in the afternoon, and I worked my way though the entire book. And I learned too incredibly useful things about myself. 1) I am pretty terrible at knowing what my bottom line is -- and if I do know, somewhere deep inside, what my bottom line is, I'm pretty terrible at actually letting it be my bottom line. Another way of putting this is that I'm quite excellent at seeing things from another point of view, reconsidering the factors -- and living with and in situations that I don't have the firmness to change.
The other thing I learned sounds like it comes straight out of reading a self-help book, but who am I to argue with the messenger? 2) I'm not so good at doing things that are just for me. I put other people and other responsibilities first, and even if I do know what I really want to do, what would bring me joy, I often feel bad saying so. When I do say so, I often do it in that way people who are bad at doing it do -- awkward!
And that's the genesis of my new year's practice. I'm going to do (at least) one thing every day that is just for my own pure, selfish enjoyment. I'm nervous that it will be hard to find those things in the city, since the things that I tend to enjoy with such clarity are out in nature, but I am counting on the fact that losing myself in a great novel, going to a play, or watching a movie or an excellent TV show are pretty reliable sources of enjoyment for me. I'm also nervous that it's going to be a very awkward year. But that's why these things are practices, because they require practice.
In the mussar practice, we do a daily, ethical accounting and evaluation of our actions towards others, and towards ourselves. I've listened to myself over the past 2 years with my mussar vaad (group) and while I've not been (by any means) perfectly ethical to others, I have again and again had a difficult time putting myself, my goals, my dreams, and my projects first -- even for 30 minutes a day.
So welcome to my new year's practice. The first thing I did was take a walk to a beautiful cove. I had already cleaned the house and packed the car for the long drive from Maine to New York, and it had taken longer than I had hoped it would, and I was aware that if I waited any longer, it would probably put me right in the middle of New Haven AND New York traffic, but it was the first day of my practice, so I took the walk.
And you know what? I didn't run into horrible traffic. (Just normal New York area 6 PM traffic.) So part of the lesson is really going to be about living in the moment, and not worrying (or one could call it obsessing) about what might come up in the future.
And as it happened, later in the day I got another chance to learn that lesson. When I got home, I learned that my dear dear dear friend Lori passed away during the day. When I got the news, I felt my heart start to break, and then I felt it go numb. My impulse was to just finish up the work I was in the middle of (packing the apartment to move the next morning.) But then I remembered what matters (it matters not to go numb) and I invited Josh out for a walk. We found our way to a wine bar, where we split a half-glass of wine (neither one of us wanted more than a ritual sip) and toasted Lori and talked about, among other things, the importance of doing things that bring us pure, selfish joy.