I’m in the middle of each of these books and noticed one day that they both contain the word “completely.” Initially I might have written that other than that, they have nothing to do with one another. One (Eleanor Oliphant) is fiction; the other, Rabbi Alan Lew’s High Holiday classic, demands his readers to be fully present, fully attuned to the truth of their lives.
Eleanor first. In Eleanor Oliphant, author Gail Honeyman has created a character whose quirkiness borders on the bizarre. Eleanor recounts her emotional and physical damage in a manner so atonal and separated from self that I don’t know what is more chilling, the incidents themselves or the manner in which she recounts them. Eleanor is definitely not completely fine. Not by half; nor by a quarter. Her life is carefully circumscribed; her shoes are hideously sensible; her evening meals consist of pizza and vodka. Her dispassionate observations of the world around her hit the bull’s eye time and again. And then there are the weekly calls from Mummy that leave the reader horrified and aching with sorrow for Eleanor.
Enter Raymond, the maladroit IT guy from work. Oblivious to proper manners and appropriate footwear, Raymond has a huge heart; his concern and compassion for Eleanor runs deep. Bit by bit, Eleanor steps out into the world: first a new haircut, a new outfit, a Bobbi Brown make over, making acquaintance and lunch dates. I imagine that by the final page, Eleanor might just be completely fine for real. And if not, she will fine enough. Considering all that came before, it will be a triumph indeed.
* * *
The ten-day period between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are days of serious spiritual introspection. At their very fullest, these days are filled with joy, apprehension, remembering, sorrow, making amends, forgiving and prayer. We reflect on our missteps of the year past, dearly hoping our atonement and intentions to do better will inspire the Divine to write us into the Book of Life for the coming year.
Considering the preparation one likely does before touring the Grand Canyon, New Zealand, et al, how much more important is it to prepare before entering the spiritual terrain of the ten Days of Awe? Readers of Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared find themselves on a spirtual journey like no other.
Lew (of blessed memory) starts us off seven weeks before on Tisha B’av, a day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. As the Temples’ walls came down, so too do we begin to dismantle our walls of mistakes, missteps and maltreatment. Chapter by chapter, Rabbi Lew teaches and prods his readers to take personal stock, to summon self-compassion for the work at hand and to gather the courage to face what we have been running from all year, if not for many years.
The older I get, the more I look forward to Yom Kippur. I’ve learned that many of the ancient sages looked at Yom Kippur not as a day of dread but as one of joy. We are given the chance to create a clean slate upon which to write in the coming year. By asking forgiveness from others, we release ourselves from the prison of self-recrimination and suffering. Reading Rabbi Alan Lew’s book gives me hope. I am not in this alone; others have trod this path before me; I can learn from them. I read slowly and make notes, copying certain insights in my journal.
Eleanor will indeed be some version of fine. This is fiction after all. As for being completely unprepared? If we take the full import of this time seriouly, I don’t think anything can prepare us completely. That’s life’s inescapable reality. Nevertheless, Rabbi Lew has left us with a magnificent roadmap to find our way. Again and again and again.