‘The goal is simply to see, hear and feel our lives in a new way’

I spent last Shavuot at a “walking, sitting, writing” retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Seven thousand feet above sea level, I planted my feet in the red-brown earth at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I held a pen between my fingers. I wrote on a page.

When I signed up for that retreat, I hadn’t noticed that it fell over a Jewish holiday. Growing up, I gave Shavuot a friendly nod with the traditional fare of cheesecake and blintzes, but my family never treated it as a heavy-hitter holiday. It was a ‘nice to have,’ not a ‘must have’ in our constellation of Jewish observance. But I still knew what Shavuot is about: vision, revelation, harvest. When we commemorate God giving the Torah to the Jewish people, I’m reminded that giving and receiving insight, and unlocking a deeper truth, requires deep listening — just like the act of writing.

For nearly 12 weeks while sheltering-in-place at home in Boston, I’ve been leading virtual writing workshops for Jewish leaders, activists and organizations. The goal of these workshops, largely inspired by the teachings of Natalie Goldberg, my retreat instructor back in Santa Fe, isn’t to write a brilliant essay or searing memoir — although perhaps some people will. The goal is simply to see, hear and feel our lives in a new way.

Here’s what usually happens: I invite people to relate to the practice of writing as a radical act of empathy for themselves, their community and the broader world. I encourage them to notice something in their space — an object, a color, a sound — that captures their imagination. Then I offer a series of writing prompts:

“The one true thing in this moment…”

“Everything I know about trees…”

“What’s in front of me…”

“Dreaming of tomorrow…”

“Try relating to a prompt as a mezuzah,” I’ll say. “A prompt can be a spiritual touchpoint to help you enter the page, without a destination.”

Then I set a timer and we write with a pen and paper, for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, maybe 20. The only guidelines are to keep our pens moving the whole time and not edit what pours onto the page.

It’s amazing what can happen while writing in community, even on Zoom: an oil painting, a silver Kiddush cup, and a faded postcard reveal themselves as meaningful. Ordinary pleasures — the tang of grapefruit, the smell of a roasted chicken, a pedicure — become sacred longings. Even the immediate present — barking dogs and messy desks — jolt ‘aliveness’ into our storms of loss.

COVID-19 has taken away much of what makes us feel human, but it hasn’t taken away our stories. If I’ve learned only one thing during this wearying time it’s that the only equalizing power we have is the power of story. Whether we’re young or old, healthy or unwell; whether we’re working on the frontlines or in front of our screens, we all have stories to tell about our bodies, our losses, our discoveries.

One afternoon while I was on my computer, my five-year-old son plucked all of the bleeding heart blossoms off the bush in our backyard. The candy-pink flowers that once dangled delicately in the spring air now sat in a clump at the bottom of a green plastic bucket.

“Why did you pluck all the hearts?” I asked my son impatiently.

“I want to make bleeding heart ice cubes,” he replied. “That way we’ll have them forever.”

We found an empty ice cube tray, placed one heart in each water-filled square, put the tray in the freezer, and waited for the hearts to transform into something new.

This year on Shavuot, I won’t have the colors, smells, and sounds of New Mexico. I won’t see the agave plants, the tufts of wild sage brush, or the yellow-striped lizards scampering over my notebook to reawaken my senses. But that’s okay. The point of this holiday, I think, is to listen, learn, and harvest right where we are: in our kitchens with unwashed dishes; in our bedrooms with unmade beds.

Alone or together, we can choose to notice whatever is near us — the darkness, the lightness, the fury, the pain — and then write it all down; not because it’s poetic, but because it’s ours. Right here in our feet, our fingers, our hearts — ready to receive in gentle silence.

Jordan Namerow is a writer and communications professional. She lives in Boston with her wife and son.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Writing retreats for Shavuot teach us to reflect

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