Somehow, once again, the high holy days have snuck right up on me. And here they are, with their pressures and promises. The anticipation of entering into these days of awe, the potential of heightened spiritual awakenings, that beg a certain kind of question and focus: what are my hopes and dreams for the coming year? what mistakes have I made? Where did I go wrong? How can I make amends? What are my resolutions for this new year? what are my goals? what will I focus on? where will my heart lead me?
And in the midst of the introspection, soul-searching and God-wrestling, I attended my 30th high school reunion last night. I went to either the 5th or the 10th, I can’t remember which. Most of the people who were surly, sarcastic and judgmental – the too cool for school crowd – in high school were the ones who went to that reunion and they hadn’t changed enough for me to want to stay for more than 15 minutes. I didn’t even consider going to the reunions after that. But in the subsequent years, many of us have found one another on Facebook. The majority of us have changed, grown, matured. Some have died. And almost all of us have mellowed (at least a little). I was raised in a small town (seriously like right out of a John Cougar Mellencamp song). It was a small town with lots of farms and without a single chain store or restaurant. I actually had a relatively easy time in high school despite both my home and inner lives. I was fairly charismatic, ridiculously funny (ok, ok, I was at least somewhat funny, give me that) and did not appear to be concerned about others’ perceptions of me or worried about looking foolish. Because I didn’t fit into any one group (neither welcomed into nor rejected from any faction), I moved among and through all of them quietly almost unobtrusively, a thread that wove between the different groups and cliques. In our senior year I was voted “most individual” (as well as most likely to have my own talk show) and the photo in the yearbook is one of me standing on my head in the library. I admit, it was a far better adolescent school experience than many people have.
Still, I was nervous about going to this shindig with people I haven’t seen in so many years who knew me through my teenage gawky stages (including that ill-chosen afro-perm I insisted on). Though a number of people turned to greet me when I walked into the restaurant, I zeroed in on Sharon. For more than 30 years I have held a painful shame at the memory of the time I was intentionally mean to her. A group of kids were teasing Sharon and I joined in. Maybe it was 4th grade. And I was (and am still) horrified at myself. That memory has stayed with me all these years and any time it has surfaced I have thrown up in my mouth more than just a little and literally felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. Mean is so beyond my tolerance. How could I have ever engaged in such horrible behavior, joining in with jerks?! But I did. And so, 30 years after graduation, I was in the same room with Sharon. She was, as she was all through school, sitting quietly by herself. I sat down and we made small talk. She never left the town we grew up in and has been at the same job in the same industrial park for 28 years. She was married, had two children, widowed and through it all remained gentle, hopeful, peaceful, kind. She seemed uncommonly content with who she has always been in the world. We share the same fervent connection with animals and she positively radiated as she talked about riding her horses daily. I took a deep breath and forced myself to make eye contact with her as I recalled my behavior and apologized. She looked completely confused. “You did?!”, she said slowly with hurt disbelief. I broke eye contact and nodded dumbly. A painful silence followed. “Wow, I have no recollection of it.” Another pause. “You always seemed nice to me. I guess it didn’t scar me for life or anything.”, she offered. Thirty-plus years I’ve been beating myself up for that incident and not only didn’t she have any memory of it, but I think I hurt her retroactively by telling her?! Well.
I made my way across the room to one of my very dearest friends from my childhood. Before I knew the differences about me, in my mind I assumed I’d marry Lisa. We were forever like an old married couple, so solidly almost soul-connected. She hugged me and as we separated she started to cry. “How can you be happy to see me?! I shared your secret. I told people. I’m ashamed still that I was such a blabbermouth.” Now it was my turn to be confused. “What are you talking about?! That I’m gay?” “Yes,” she said. “Oh honey,” I laughed, “Anyone looking at me knew that. The mullet gave that away long before you said a word.” She clearly didn’t see the humor in what I found so amusing. I didn’t even know she had told anyone. Nor did I care. It was nothing I ever tried to hide. But clearly, it was as painful a shame as my behavior toward Sharon had been for me. Well.
Then I saw Jacqui. Jacqui was my bravest companion. When, in 9th grade, an upperclassman bullied me (for being Jewish), Jacqui was insouciant and carried on walking with me through the halls as though she couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge the antisemitic slurs being hurled my way. Jacqui’s self assurance and certitude were lessons learned in her home. Jacqui had the family that most people only dream of (I did for certain). Seven kids, hippie parents, all tight-knit and so much love, laughter and homesteading craftiness it radiated home in its deepest, most profound sense. Jacqui and I quickly caught one another up, our conversation peppered with peals of laughter, shouted excitement at congruent experiences and unsurprised happiness over collateral outlooks and perspectives. Of course Jacqui grows her own vegetables, raises chickens and cans like a woman possessed. Her squeal of happy support over my soap-making was louder than “eye of the tiger” blaring from the D.J.’s speakers. Jacqui also has a differently-abled child and is scheduled to attend divinity school this coming week. She shyly recalled the fork in the road of our friendship, a hurt she sustained and held gently still. Apparently, when running for some school office in our senior year, Jacqui made a speech and ended it with, “God loves you!” She seemed to go back in time in her mind as she remembered the look of disgust on my face and the almost audible rent in our friendship. Her sadness and hurt were palpable even now. My breath caught, my eyes grew wide as I felt the almost physical pang of my embarrassed discomfort mingled with her pain and sadness. “I’m sorry.”, was all I could say. While I have no recollection of that specific incident, it does not diminish the hurt. Which is what I said when Jacqui admitted to feeling badly for bringing it up after so many years. I assured her that I felt it was better to have brought it up so that we could possibly move beyond it and rekindle our connection without baggage. How strange that a religious offering so offended me back then. Stranger still that my own religious awakening took place not so many years later. Perhaps strangest of all is that I truly have no recollection, not even a stirring at the back of my heart, of something so insensitive and hurtful I’d done.
A Jewish mystic and scholar once said, “The secret God shared with Adam was not how to begin, but how to begin again.” So in the spirit of these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and in the form of a metta-prayer:
May those I have hurt in my callous unawareness be released from that pain. May the knowledge that I have hurt another be a gentle reminder to make amends and return to the path of lovingkindness. May I forgive myself as graciously as others forgive me. May I be granted the knowledge of how to begin again and be blessed with the desire and the ability to do so.