I've Lived In Chico, CA 9 Years Now. Incredible.
Lost and Found and Lost then Found Again
I am notorious for my poor sense of direction. Fortunately, today’s navigational tools have made this deficit no more than a blip on my life radar screen. My little disability has actually come in quite handy in my new and highly valued (to me especially) position as a volunteer driving someone who recently had a stroke to synagogue services.
“Where do I turn? Remember, you have to remind me,” I tell my companion who is getting over some struggles still in his speech and language. And tell me he does, correctly.
Only a non-Jew is suitable for driving a devout person with an Orthodox background who had walked himself to services before. “Yay! Finally, a job for which I am uniquely qualified in the congregation!” I'd said to my husband when I read in a newsletter that such a driver was needed. My husband doesn't attend many services, so I asked him if he minded me doing this favor. "I don't want to take away the time we spend together," I said. "But who else can do this?"
“It’s your mitzvah,” said my husband.
I've been enjoying the experience. My new companion, a cantor who is getting his voice back after the hemmorhagic assault on his body, has sung prayers for me personally as we got to know one another. He teaches me interesting lessons, for example explaining the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi cantorial works. He doesn’t yet believe it, as he listens to recordings of his voice before illness struck, but the words and tones coming out of him are beautiful, full of feeling: reverence, mourning, humility, questions, emphatic assurance that Someone hears. Any imperfection, to me, makes the music all the more moving and reminds me that prayers emanating from broken places ring truest of all.
“I get lost so easily,” I remind him repeatedly whenever we drive, as he thinks and searches for the words: Straight ahead, turn left at the light, three blocks down... I pretend I don’t have a navigator in the car, other than himself. I keep asking for direction and he keeps a step ahead of me to prevent me from making a wrong turn. It works for both of us.
So today in synagogue I selected a random Shabbat service book from shelves full of them. Sitting with my friend, I opened the book and a slip of paper fell out. I read what was on the strip and I froze, struck by words that left a lump in my throat. Services had not yet started, so I asked the Rabbi if all the prayer books had this little slip in them. “No,” she replied, “You must have dug out a book used for a bar or bat mitzvah from some time ago.” I kept reading and rereading the words, trying to imagine them as part of a Mitzvah service. Well, I thought, it is a Reconstructionist Synagogue, known for its inclusive tone. But still...
A bit later, during a break between the Shabbat and Torah services the Rabbi asked all to share with someone sitting close by about a suffering we had endured that had ultimately blessed us somehow. My seatmate was the person I am helping. Having had his stroke a few short months ago, he wasn’t quite ready to find a blessing in his predicament. I couldn’t have him sitting silent there, so I started telling my story as the Rabbi had asked.
I told him that for a lot of reasons, I’d sometimes felt terribly abandoned, even profoundly lost in life. Outwardly, I functioned, but inwardly, I'd suffered. While everyone does, I felt I needed to be strongest and hold everything together even as I lost the thread of "me."
“There have been too many of these occasions to get specific now; from the days when I was small, through all the decades I've lived, there have been days, weeks, or months where I felt the bottom dropped out of my world and I was basically alone. I even feel a little bit lost in these services. My tradition is different. I don’t feel very connected to my own ‘people of the generations before me.’ The words here are in a language I don’t know.
"But the blessing of having felt completely lost more often than some people would ever believe I have…” I looked down at the crumpled slip of paper still in my hand –“is the knowledge I have now that I never really lost anything or been alone. God's always been with me and kept me safe even through days I felt sick to my stomach from fear. I don't know how or why I know this, and I really don't even have a clear conception of this God...but the blessing is that today I know that I never will be alone or as lost as I might feel again some day.” As I said it, it sounded so clumsy. I wondered if other people had better stories.
I switched into joke mode because that’s the kind of gal I am when things get intense. “I have traveled all over the country and parts of Europe, and no matter how lost I thought I was, I always found myself!” Ha ha, he didn’t laugh. “I know that I am safe no matter what.” At that, he smiled.
Later on I showed my husband, who had stayed home, the little slip that had fallen into my hands out of that random book I had selected from the shelves. Although it had apparently been part of someone else's mitzvah service, I decided to take it as a personal message from God to me…to all of us. It said:
“How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone tell you
You were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle…
How deeply you’re connected to My soul….”
How seriously, I had never been abandoned, nor irretrievably lost.
I have really been getting into cantorial music lately! It's a special form of worship. Here's a sample for those who aren't familiar.