Sometimes I come across something – a poem, a song, a quotation, sometimes even something I’ve written myself – and I know it’s got something important to tell me, but I’m not quite sure what that thing is yet. And then, later – sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years – something will happen that brings it all into focus. Like, Oh. So that’s what that was all about.
This poem is one of them. I first encountered it a whole bunch of years ago – I’m pretty sure I found it on Livejournal or Tumblr, and it’s been about a decade since I’ve used either of those – and only last summer, after I was tested in a big way and failed, spectacularly, did it finally make sense why it had stuck in my mind for all these years.
The whole thing is relevant, but it this is the part where it really picks up:
I have nothing but the time and space I’ve been pining for now,To the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, Mindy Nettifee
and I am using this opportunity to try and remember
why I thought this was a good idea.
I think it had something to do with Escape,
which has permanent offices in the romance division of my brain
and ground troops in my solar plexus.
The flight instinct comes on quicksand,
muscles out all rational thought,
starts Morse coding my limbic system with
complex dots and dashes for strange verbs that mean,
roughly translated: “joyous chewing your leash off,”
and “fire without readiness or aim.”
It always feels so right to go,
like it’s the only story my body knows by heart
The reason this poem spoke to me is that I, too, am a runner, a flight risk. Escape has permanent offices in the romance division of my brain (and probably every other division too), and I am known for nothing if not firing without readiness or aim. I’ve spent most of my life running from just about everything, but most of all from myself. Evidently, my subconscious recognized this tendency in me way before I was able to accept it, or understand it, or verbalize it.
I’ve always been impatient, pathologically so. I can’t handle living with uncertainty. I’ve done some ridiculously foolish, destructive things because of it. I’d rather put an end to an unsettling situation myself than let it drag on, even if there’s potential for something very good to come of it. I’ve ruined some wonderful things this way.
This Yom Kippur was a big turning point in my religious journey. It was one of the first times I really felt how Judaism and God and prayer could be a support for me in a very dark time. It was also a time when I was thinking about this poem quite a lot, reading it over and over to myself, having only just pieced all of this together.
And as I was reciting the Viduy, for what felt like the millionth time, there was this one line, “for the sin we have sinned before You by casting off the yoke.”
“Casting off the yoke.” “Joyous chewing your leash off.”
Oh. So that’s what that was all about.
I think that’s where God comes in, for me. Believing there is a God who’s in charge of all of this, who has some sort of grand plan that somehow or other will be for the best, that everything isn’t solely cause-and-effected by my shoddy choices – whether it’s ultimately true or not, this might be the one thing that can stop me from pulling that trigger. “Let go and let God,” as certain cringey Christians are wont to say. Except maybe they’re right. Casting on that yoke of – I don’t want to say obedience, exactly, but something like that – to a higher power, Someone who in return can help me shoulder the terrible burden of being myself, and doing it with love, not resentment. There’s something thrilling, exhilarating about casting off that yoke, slipping off that leash, and going it alone, the freedom of it, no one to answer to, but finally I can see that it’s not the best way, not for me.
Of course, all that is easier said than done. Since Yom Kippur, I’ve been trying to get to “joyous slipping my leash on,” which means getting right with God, sure, but also with what few people are still left in my life and, maybe most importantly, with myself. They’re all leashes in their own ways – religion, relationships, selfhood – and for a long time I thought that was something to run from. But sometimes a leash can keep you in line, keep you safe, keep you from getting hit by a car. Sometimes a leash means love. And sometimes that makes the loss of freedom worth it.
It’s slow going. There are a lot of ups and downs. I’m still far from where I want to be. But at least now I’m on the way.
I have spent the past many months learning to face what irritates me with compassion, or trying to. Learning that I can’t change my family, and learning to love them anyway, as they are. Learning that it’s time to surrender in my epic decades-long battle against reality. Learning to face up to all the things I’ve done wrong, the people I’ve hurt. Learning not to be so selfish. Learning how to step up and be there for people I love even when my own dumb drama and issues make it really, really hard.
I don’t think it’s true that you have to learn to love yourself before anyone else can love you. But I do think, at least for me, it was necessary to get really, really real with myself about my faults and my flaws and my failings, and to accept that ultimately they are mine and no one else’s, before being in any way capable of maintaining functional human relationships.
I think I’ve just about slipped that leash on. I think I’m finally ready to be a real person. The question is if it isn’t too late for anything good to come of it.