Seeking out the reservoir of optimism.
It’s at the moment when the plane begins to bump and roll, when it feels as if we’re in nothing more than a tin can, lurching around 36,000 feet up in the sky, that the singing begins. The experts on anxiety teach that distraction works well, so I am religious about bringing my iPod on every flight. And though I have been careful to charge the iPod the night before, somehow I’ve managed to leave it and the tangled earplugs in my bag at my feet, and now the plane is jerking around and I can’t possibly move my head — keep it still and you don’t get nauseous — so I am singing to myself instead.
I begin with the yoga music I used to listen to years ago at the Big Bend yoga center in St. Louis. Da da da da da da da. Da da da da da da da. There’s an om in there somewhere. I imagine myself doing the motions that go with the tune, even though I wouldn’t begin to move in the present circumstances. Arms flow up, taking in the whole world, in all its largeness. Hands clasp above my head and flow down into the posture of prayer.
The humming goes on for awhile, and if the plane is still bumping and flapping, I start on the whole songbook, a mix of the corny from childhood and the foundational ones: “Where are you Going?” the song from “Godspell,” in which a young girl asks Jesus, who is going off to die, to take her with him. And early Joni Mitchell, a high-pitched rendering of “Case of You.” And “My Favorite Things” thrown in for good measure. It’s my playlist, my own personal top 10. A portable well of faith that I can draw upon.
The singing sustains me, calms me, and what’s more, it generates hope. I don’t do optimism. Optimism is a long-term mode of being I can’t relate to. It suggests a permanence that eludes people like me. My life is a chiaroscuro work — broad strokes of charcoal laid down against gleaming white bits and pieces. Given the dim and unfortunate state of the world these days, hope is the most I can hope for. Emily Dickinson calls it “the thing with feathers.” She says it “perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
It turns out the Israelites sang, too, in their distressing moments. Sustaining songs. A traditional read of the Crossing of the Sea chapter of our story has us singing, once led by Moses, and once by Miriam, at the far shore of the sea — waves receding, feet nearly dry, terra firma at last. Talk about a hopeful group of people — Miriam and her cohorts are said to have brought timbrels with them when they were leaving Egypt. Biblical scholar Aviva Zornberg and her midrashic predecessors offer an even more radical read, a glimpse of the way hope rises in the midst of despair. Zornberg envisions the Israelites as singing while they walk between the walls of water, and in her words, “fear engenders faith and song.” A kind of buoyant hopefulness arises in the dark terror of that crossing, and it all happens in song.
The Israelites are not singing after their salvation is assured; rather they sing as the miracle itself unfolds. It’s counterintuitive, and yet the strategy smacks of wisdom. It’s the “do and then believe” idea, which, early on in my spiritual life, when I was still wanting to analyze everything, I discovered actually works. Thanksgiving rising in the deepest darkness. I’m not certain that attaining that kind of faith is even possible. In my experience, the gratitude, the hope tends to come once the terror has passed. Sometimes it takes a long time to get there. And yet, if we reflect upon more recent history, the sustaining songs are everywhere. Black spirituals born in the fields of Georgia and Mississippi, protest songs rising from the lips of women, anti-war and civil rights leaders marching in righteous indignation.
Singing takes the Israelites, and us too, beyond the normal places that mere speech can go. The voice, riding melody and rhythm, bumps up against Spirit.
Consider our contemporary, Diana Nyad, 61 years old, who recently set out to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, in turbulent, shark-infested waters. What was Nyad going to do to hoist her spirits during those interminable 60 wet hours? She planned on singing: Neil Young, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, thousands of times a day. Her favorite, “Ticket to Ride,” she said, had a cadence that matched her stroke.
Abused as a teenager, Nyad said she now swims in awe of the world around her. This idea of nurturing hope into being, of hope as something that can be coaxed out of the deep nighttimes of our lives, was what Pascal was after when he said, “You should always keep something beautiful in your mind.” The idea is to retain some small scrap of beauty deep within that you can draw upon, like a well.
The Irish poet John O’Donohue, puts it this way, “If you retain some contour that you can glimpse sideways now and again, you can endure great bleakness.” I imagine the Israelites, in that Red Sea moment, calling upon some small, protected reserve of faith and energy even their taskmasters could not touch.
We know this place. We’ve encountered it in our deepest and darkest moments, and it is in this place that hope is born, resides, and is carried. As O’Donohue says, “There is a place in you, still, where there is a seamlessness and tranquility. And the intention of prayer, spirituality, love, is to now and again visit that inner sanctuary.”
In some ways, then, we can say the Israelites were building that mishkan (tabernacle) all along, way before Moses and Bezalel, too, were given all those picayune details about how to put it together. For me, that inner sanctuary, that hope-generative place, has arisen in the most mundane and dismal circumstances. It is there in a yoga class, with the rubbery smell of the mats and the sweat-stained T-shirts and dusty windowsills, when the width of my sun salutation takes in the great possibility of the widest imagining of my world. It has come at a Rosh HaShanah service in the church on 96th Street, with stone angels up above us and Jesus, covered in cloth, behind, and a massive crowd of congregants I’ve never seen at the usual B’nai Jeshurun service on Friday night. Suddenly, after seemingly endless hours of feeling absolutely nothing, an oud is playing, and Basya Schechter begins singing, “Al Tashlihanu,” (Do not abandon us), in a voice that breaks your heart, the yearning so raw, so unburnished, and all the other congregants answer from their own most secret, unguarded places, and I am in tears. When the song is over, we all return to mere chanting, whispering in a syncopated Hebrew I still don’t fully understand, and it sits there in that deep inner silence. Hope. Joy.
O’Donohue says, “It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you.” He says that poetry tries to “draw alongside” the Mystery. Singing often does, as well. In that chorus of voices, I can hear what’s within you — that pure, unknowable something — and it meets up with the edge of who I am.
On a bouncing airplane, in a Rosh HaShanah service in a church on 96th, in immense corridors of the sea, hope alights. Darkness’ twin, sometimes hope settles in the most desolate of places. My husband and I, this summer, were lost at Point Lobos State Park just north of Big Sur, in California. Or not lost, really, but looking for a particular trail we had once taken, and a particular tree. He was certain we should take the path on the left, the Cypress Grove trail, and I just knew it was the one on the right, the North Shore Trail. We’ve lived our lives — almost 30 years — having this conversation. We took the one on the right.
There were layers of gold and scarlet scrub and poison oak and bends in the path we didn’t recognize. Somewhere far off, the barking of seals, and the beating wings of a turkey vulture, circling above. And then it was there — a small, battered wood sign, “The Old Veteran,” and an arrow pointing straight ahead. Twenty paces around the bend and there across the watery cove spread in front of us, he was waiting. A cypress, almost 300 years old, the old Veteran is a tarnished gray wonder, his enormous trunk and tangled root system climbing out of the sheer rock face of the cliff.
His crown is a scruffy evergreen, windblown and wild. The fog drifted and played behind him. And if that wasn’t enough, the Pacific blue roared and crashed over the rocks 40 feet below, as if in adoration. The old veteran makes me think of stubborn old men, my grandfather, perhaps, or the people I admire most, insistent on growing, on life itself, despite the bleak and negligent conditions. The hopeful ones.
Shelly R. Fredman teaches writing at Barnard College and at the Writer’s Beit Midrash at Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post and in a number of journals and anthologies. She is at work on a spiritual memoir.