This story, written in 2008, describes a turning point in my life that happened in 1986.
August 27, 1986*
The picture of Jesus on the wall was the largest I had even seen in my entire Jewish life. Jesus was looking tall and benevolent, wearing, of course, his usual robe and slippers, while holding an innocent-looking, nonchalant lamb. It took up most of the wall, appearing practically-larger-than-life-sized. Or perhaps it was me. Perhaps my perception was off—I wasn’t feeling very well. We were facing each other, Jesus and I, assessing each other, sizing each other up.
I wasn’t sure of him at all.
We were all sitting on horridly rickety, uncomfortable metal folding chairs, which had seen better days. Mine was uneven and when I moved, which seemed often, the chair responded with a squeak. My already out-of-the-box-galloping-self-consciousness was magnified by this damn chair that had to call attention to my every nervous readjustment. There were about twenty people sitting in a makeshift circle. I could hardly bear to look at anyone but Jesus.
We were in what seemed to be a tan rec-room, off the main chapel, with faded paint, an old ping pong table off to the side, and a battered floral couch that had indeed seen better days. There was a coffee percolator on a card table with Styrofoam cups, a few disorganized, scattered napkins stained with coffee, cookies in an open box, and a plastic bowl of hard candies. I shuttered at the obvious lack of nutritional sophistication of these people, whoever they were. I would never eat any of that. My commitment to my raw foods diet was impeccable.
People were talking. It seemed impossible to focus my hearing to make the words individuated. They made no sense to me. The sounds of the words assaulted me all at once and poured endlessly over me. I couldn’t seem to slow them down, to divide them out. What the heck was happening to me? That thought terrified me anew, and I took a bit of a breath, which seemed to slow everything down a little.
“And I realize that I wasn’t the only person who felt like that,” a voice said.
I searched around the circle to find the owner of the voice. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was The Leather Woman. She was dressed in a black leather vest, despite the intolerable heat. She had on skin-tight jeans, knee-length laced boots with spiked-super-spiked heels, and a bikers’ cap on her dyed inky black hair.
But it was the piercing—the piercing!—that mesmerized me. This was well before piercing was in vogue. She had a dozen tiny metal balls streaming down the length of each ear, piercings in each of her nostrils, and something odd and metallic adorning her right eyebrow. Although I had lived in the East Village for years and had been accustomed to everybody, every shape, race, color, size, gender combo- blend of personal expression, this was over the top for me. I was both fascinated and repulsed by the elaborate display. Surely this woman and I existed in different universes. I was a separatist, a radical Jewish lesbian. I was Nachama, the name of my grandmother’s mother. She was—The Pierced Lady. I believed in and lived for the matriarchy, freed from the symbols of male power and oppression. I saw her as a walking embodiment of exactly that.
What the fuck was I doing here with these people? The intensity of my discomfort continued to rise. I felt downright squirmy but stayed seated. There seemed no alternative but to sit, to allow this strange, foreign meeting with its own cast of characters to play out.
Jesus met my eye again, offering me a touchstone of presence. I squirmed beneath his gaze.
I tried to take another breath, attempting to discern the words floating around me.
The Pierced Lady continued:
“I get really scared when I don’t know how to do something.”
Those twelve words woke me up. I heard them; they seemed to permeate the fog that clung to me. They shook me deeply, fully.
ME, TOO, I thought. I GET REALLY SCARED WHEN I DON’T KNOW WHAT PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT IN
MY POLITICAL GROUP. I PRETEND I DO—I TRY TO REPEAT SOMETHING SOMEONE SAID TO MAKE IT MINE. I GET—TERRIFIED.
I sat up straighter. The Pierced Lady continued:
“I want people to like me. I want everybody to think I’m good and kind and do good things. I just don’t know how to be myself, to have my feelings, to show up. When I get scared, all I want to do—all I do—is to drink and drug. When I do that, then I can show up. It kind of works for a while, and then, it gets messy and doesn’t. Everything just gets worse. The problems get bigger and I feel like shit about myself, even more. I feel like shit about me, EVEN MORE.”
I was stunned, now at the edge of my chair. She, The Pierced Lady from the galaxy of biker-land, was speaking the words of my inner, most secret life. She was saying things about me that I hadn’t quite said to myself, about myself, but I knew them, deeply, truly inside. They were the words that I tried forever and always to push away. In her speaking them aloud, something inside of me shifted and settled.
She went on, describing her attempts to stay sober and clean, about how her life was improving slowly, one day at a time, I have never had the experience of being so impacted by somebody’s words. It was almost as if they missed my brain and entered directly into my body, into my heart. My head calmed. I sat alert, in awe.
“Just don’t use. Just don’t pick up. You can outlive those feelings. Keep coming back here. Just keep coming. Thanks.” The Pierced Lady ended to a round of applause.
I sat, dumbfounded. She understood me, this be-leathered, odd being. Despite the differences in our costumes, despite our obvious contrary political perspectives, she spoke my world into being. She put words to my reality. Everything seemed very still in the room.
The leader, a lanky jock-looking guy in cut-offs and dirty white high-top sneakers, thanked her and said, “Let’s continue the discussion with Jason,” and looked to a pimply kid on his left. Jason opened his mouth and started talking.
It happened again. And it happened again and again, as the discussion passed organically around the circle. Although I don’t remember the content, these people, these men, these strange women, each spoke of something that touched me, something that held a mirror up to my own self. I had never in my thirty-eight years felt so joined by other people, people I had never seen before.
Somehow the discussion floated around the circle. Somehow the words spoken continued to be my words, wanting to be said, wanting to be released. Somehow, eventually, when the circle’s attention focused on me, without thought, with chattering teeth and sweaty hands, I was able to say:
“My name is Nachama. I’m an addict.”
Without thought, without planning, my wounded self was disclosed, my gravest secret bathed in the light of acceptance.
I had landed.
According to our friends at Webster, a miracle is:
“A surprising and welcomed event that is not explicable by natural or scientific law and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency;
An Improbable or extraordinary event or development that brings positive results”
And you, dear friends? What are the miracles, the synchronistic events that happen, that continue to happen around you, that change your awareness, that open you up to the moment, that soften your heart, that switch up your direction?
Big moments or little, no matter what is happening, there is grace around us.
The Chanukah Miracle—
In about 166 BE, the Jews began to fight back against the Greeks, who were prohibiting their religious freedom. After years of battling against three strong Greek armies, the victorious Jews came back to their Temple, which had been destroyed. They shattered the statue of Greek and cleaned the Temple as best they could.
They only found one small flask of uncontaminated oil with the seal of the High Priest. By the laws of the Torah, the flame of the Menorah (Candelabrum) in the Temple could only be lit with specially prepared pure olive oil. The amount of oil remaining in the one uncontaminated flask was only enough to burn for one day, and it would take eight days to produce a new batch of pure oil.
What could they do?
They lit it — and it miraculously burned for eight days.
May the light return.
May the light return.
In wise hope.
Hope that opens
To the moment,
Offering an escape hatch
Away from it,
*This story is an expert from my book, Recovering My Voice.