Tashlich (תשליך) is a ritual that many Jews observe during Rosh Hashanah. “Tashlich” means “casting off” in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate.
This past fall I spent Rosh Hashanah weekend with a group of women in a rented house in Ventura, California, a beach town perched between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The plan was to have a simple Rosh Hashanah dinner together on Sunday night and then half our group would commute back to LA to attend services in the city and the other half – including me – would take a high-speed catamaran to Santa Cruz Island (one of the amazing Channel Islands dotting the coast) for a day of hiking and open-water kayaking, a way of communing with God through nature and starting the Jewish New Year.
This was one of the first outings I’d made since telling my husband of 25 years that I no longer wanted to be married. Though John and I were still living in the same house, trying to make it to the time when our youngest of three children would graduate high school some eight months hence, things were tense. When he’d dropped me and my friend Rose at the train station that morning and learned from Rose when I was off buying tickets that our plans included open-water kayaking– something we as a couple had long wanted to do but, like so many things in our marriage, had never occurred – he left my bags at the station and took off in a huff, not bothering to say goodbye.
I am not Jewish, but I joined in the ritual meal that night with delight, asking questions about the food, the holiday of the New Year, the coming of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and its rituals, asking why Jewish holidays always start at sundown when, as Catholics, we always started our holy days with the new day. When this sundown rationale was explained to me, I glommed on. I loved the idea of walking through the darkness of night, waiting for the light of the holiday to bring illumination and clear-seeing into my life. That felt very much like the journey I was on – one of darkness and bumping around, feeling my way, stumbling, stubbing toes, afraid and trembling, waiting for a new day to dawn.
That night, Michelle, one of the women who’d organized the weekend, explained to me Tashlich, a ritual performed on Rosh Hashanah in which participants gather up leftover Challah from the meal and carry it to a place of running water – a stream, the ocean — and then cast this bread upon the waters, letting go of all the sins of the past year. The group wasn’t planning to undertake this particular ritual that night, but for me, it hit a spark.
Though I’d been no more sinful than usual in the preceding 12 months, I felt a deep need for forgiveness and asked the ladies if they’d join me in performing Tashlich. We took flashlights to the darkened beach a block from the house, felt the sand that had been hot enough to burn our feet only a few hours earlier now cool and damp between our toes. The moon was almost nonexistent and the ocean’s waves made a scrim of lace barely discernable in the flashlight’s dim glow.
I meandered away from the group and felt the bread, sticking together in my hand. Reared in a devout Irish-Catholic home, I remembered making communion wafers out of Wonder Bread, its texture perfect — soft, white, pliable – to form little body-of-Christ discs. This Challah bread, though, felt different, with more edges and crust, sharp bits that bit into my palm like the pieces of glass that felt lodged in my lungs whenever I thought about leaving my marriage. I tore the bread into little pieces, lots and lots of pieces for all the things I needed to let go.
First off, being a devoted wife. I tossed a piece into the ocean, repentant. I had spent 25 years as loyal as I possibly could be, faithful, giving my heart and soul to my family only to find myself profoundly alone at the end of each day. That hadn’t always been the case, but for the past decade or so, I could no longer ignore the low-grade ache of loneliness within the façade of couple-hood that never left, like a headache that eases on occasion but never departs. I had wanted to be a good wife and had done all I was capable of doing in that way, seeking individual therapy for myself, working on my own issues, asking John to sign us up for couples therapy. But after all that work, I found myself unable to be the kind of fully present wife I wanted to be. To stay in the marriage and fake that devotion was to do us both a grave disservice. But I mourned the wife I had set out to be the day I made my marriage vows.
I tossed another piece of bread into the ocean – my desire to be a perfect mother. Together, John and I raised three wonderful young people. The work we did together as co-parents is a testament to our love of them and our desire to be the best parents we could be, a desire that I must admit trumped our need to be good spouses to each other. Whenever I feel sad about the demise of our marriage, I remember the kids that are the product of it and I can’t stay in the sadness too long. While we were unable to help each other in the way that I think the best couples are able to, to love and support each other as unique individuals, we had been fabulous parents together. And maybe that’s why our marriage paid a price – always so focused on the kids. But now that I was planning to leave, I knew I would have to give up the mantle of the good mother. A good mother doesn’t leave her children’s father. A good mother keeps the family together at any cost, is the glue that binds it all together. My glue had long ago lost its stickiness. And I had allowed it to.
I threw in bread for the marriage I thought I had been building all those years, for the household we’d created, for the house we’d lost to foreclosure 12 years earlier and the new house we’d managed to buy just a year-and-a-half ago. I threw in a piece of bread for the many hardships we’d weathered together: John’s near-death from a pulmonary embolism, our second son’s near-drowning at age three, that same son’s diagnosis with a severe anxiety disorder in high school, the death of John’s mother, the passing of my father. We’d been able to weather those hardships as a couple – difficulties that might have ended the marriage long before this point — but rather than strengthening the bond, at some point, the troubles started piling on top of each other, saddling our relationship with a burden we couldn’t quite escape. My sin, I suppose, was in letting it happen, in not speaking up sooner, in not knowing how to correct this trajectory.
I threw in bread for the young woman I’d been when I’d paired up with John – 22, wide-eyed, looking for security at any cost – and another piece for the older, wiser and more flinty woman I’ve since become, now staring down the barrel of 50. Bread tossed away, like the hours of our lives, like the dreams and hopes we must relinquish in order for other, new ones to arrive. I emptied my hands of the Challah, letting go of all I knew. My tears mixed with the salty brine licking at my feet.
A week and a half later, as Yom Kippur approached, I figured that since Rosh Hashanah had been so spiritually helpful, I’d observe that atonement holy day as well. I found it odd that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, preceded the Day of Atonement, that the sweetness of the New Year came first, apples dipped in honey, when the fasting had yet to begin. But maybe that’s human nature: we need a taste of the sweetness to lure us into doing the hard work. I went to Catholic Mass in the morning on Yom Kippur – I know, an odd way to celebrate a Jewish holiday, but there you have it – and prayed my heart out. One of the things I’d learned about the Day of Atonement is that it’s a time to ask to be released from any contracts we were unable to keep in the past year. And that’s what I prayed for: I acknowledged that I had entered into this marriage contract willingly and had said those words – till death to us part – of my own volition. But I could see now how unable I was to understand their meaning when I said them. I was, at the time, a woman with great emotional wounds. The daughter of an alcoholic/mentally ill mother, I was an untreated alcoholic myself seeking in a desperate way a man who would keep me from going crazy as she had, and perhaps get me to tone down the drinking. Now, with 23 years of sobriety behind me and the clear vision that comes with it, I see that I was incapable of making those vows that day in any real way, too desperate for someone to save me from myself. I admitted this to God, kneeling at Holy Redeemer Church on Yom Kippur, asking divine forgiveness and love, requesting that I finally be released from those vows. I didn’t hear any angels singing God’s acceptance of my request, nor did the heavens part and a dove descend. Tears flowed, snot ran, sniffles ensued. After I’d destroyed what seemed an entire boxful of tissues, I was cried out and left the church, my heart half a gram lighter.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, and as a Catholic, I’d always been a terrible faster, cheating every time I’d been given the chance, claiming hypoglycemia or whatever excuse I might dig up to support the fact that being hungry made me irritable, anxious and scared. But this day felt epic. I needed to atone for my part in the end of this marriage. And so I fasted. Oddly, it was not nearly the ordeal I’d feared and that told me something crucial. The things I fear and run from are the very things, that when I sit down calmly and face them, are not nearly the boogiemen I’d anticipated. Yes, there was a mild headache as the day wore on, yes, my stomach growled and I felt a bit weakened, but the hours passed. I felt as if I were doing my part and that was reward in itself.
I broke the fast with the same ladies who had been with me in Ventura, the taste of food heavenly after a day of want, the flavors made richer by simple hunger.
A few weeks later, I moved out of the family house into a one-room guesthouse with a Murphy bed, a tiny kitchenette, and gorgeous west-facing windows that paint the wooden floors golden in the afternoon light. I’d found out that once you speak the words “I’m done,” it’s nearly impossible to stay. And more importantly, having undertaken these rituals with my Jewish friends, I’d felt strengthened and ready. A person can only do what a person can do; I’d done all I could to make the relationship viable. When I could not resurrect it, I’d had to acknowledge my limitations and make a choice. Did I want to remain in a secure place, or was I ready to grow?
I’m grateful that I didn’t realize, before leaving, how amazingly painful and grief-stricken this transition would be. I had foolishly thought that since I’d enacted these rituals and had undertaken boatloads of therapy and worked for discernment, that would be that. I would walk away with a clear conscience and need not dwell on the past nor on what might have been. But leaving children behind is never easy, even mostly grown children. I feared abandoning them as my mother had abandoned my siblings and me. And the grief? I couldn’t have guessed there’d be so damn many layers of it.
My heart on many days feels like it is made of Jell-O, warm and creepy Jell-O that leaks all over me, staining my hands that indelible artificial red as I try to force it back into the shape of a heart, leaving a film of stickiness everywhere, a layer I cannot fully wash away.
Yet, now ensconced in my new place, a gift I can never repay, I enact new rituals. I light candles and meditate and allow myself to feel as deeply as I can, to breathe into my heart the pain of this transformation, and to feel at that moment a sense of communion with all the other souls undergoing similar transitions. I walk to the grocery store and buy only that which I can carry home, a reminder that I’m on my own now and need care for myself first and foremost. Give us this day our daily bread. I cook in much smaller quantities – dinner for one – and am learning to find joy in doing so. I live a block from my daughter’s high school and I lure her into joining me for homework or dinner or a sleep-over at least once a week; I drive to the family home to help her with college applications. I’m learning how to be an active mother even when not sharing living quarters with my children. And I ache in a new way – not the old familiar ache of loneliness within a coupled façade, but the bone-annihilating ache of reconstruction. I remember reading about caterpillars turning into butterflies. It’s not like the caterpillar gives up one leg – I can manage without this one leg this week – in exchange for, say, a wing, allowing transformation to happen little by little, piece by piece, exchanging one existence for another. No. The caterpillar basically becomes mush, he ceases to exist as a caterpillar for the time of transformation and becomes a pile of juice, a clump of nothing more than wet potential for as long as it takes to reform as a butterfly. I’m in that mush state now. Neither wife nor single. Neither fulltime mom nor absent mom. Neither the scared young girl who said “I do” in a church all those years ago, nor the woman who is learning to live fully on her own. It’s a tender-to-the-bone kind of transformation filled with ragged edges and messiness. But it’s real and I feel genuine as I walk through it. I’m grateful for Tashlich, for Rosh Hashanah, for Catholic Mass, for Yom Kippur, for candles and meditation, for my children’s willingness to try to understand my choice even though it hurts them, and for all the rituals – secular, spiritual, and motherhood-related — that are being redesigned to fit this new reality. These are the elements that are carrying forward through this dark night, the ceremonies and graces that will one day deliver me into a new dawn that hasn’t yet arrived.
Bernadette Murphy is currently writing “Look, Lean, Roll,” a book about women, motorcycles and risk taking, Bernadette Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction (including the bestselling “Zen and the Art of Knitting”) and teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program.