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Walking Upstairs from the Basement of Shame

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Yom Kippur 5781
“Walking Upstairs from the Basement of Shame”

Whenever I look up at the night sky and try to pinpoint the patterns of Orion and other constellations overhead, I sometimes wonder…

Who was the first to gaze upon an ink-black sky peppered with sparkling stars, and think to draw a line, linking one star, to the next?

Who was the first to play “connect the dots,” weaving random stars into exquisite constellations of message, and meaning?

Who was the first to imagine those blank, black voids in-between the stars…as spaces for purpose, potential, and possibility?

It was as if someone once envisioned each star as a note of music…and then, journeyed into the spaces between them to compose bigger constellations and larger symphonies.

Many, many years later, another kind of composer from another moment in time, took up a similar theme. Stars and music, it turns out, have something in common. Because as the French musical mastermind Claude Debussy once observed, “The real music is not in the notes… but in all of the spaces that exist in-between.”

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, often called the “Days of Awe,” are also known as the “Days Between.”

If Rosh Hashanah is one note, or one star, and Yom Kippur is another, than the days between are when the real music, the real work, is supposed to happen. The real work of opening the doors to our hearts and going down to the basements of our souls. Downstairs, to the vulnerable places, where we’ve stored up memories of shame,  and moments of regret.

Since March, we have been living through another “in-between time” of sorts, living between the world as it was, and the world as it will be.

Like the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,  this Covid time has brought many of us down to our real or proverbial basements, as we’ve found ourselves with more time at home and, with it, more time for rediscovering the things that we’ve stored down below, lying dormant, perhaps for quite some time.

During this in-between time of quarantine, I went down to my own basement one day, and I rediscovered my flute. 

For almost 20 years, it has been stored away, first in my parents’ basement, and then, in mine. Like an old forgotten friend, feeling the sting of abandonment, it watched as I went off, out into the world, without it.

And then, this past June, almost 20 years later, I found myself in the midst of another monotonous day in quarantine. I went to the basement to look for some old photos, and nestled between boxes and photo albums, I rediscovered my flute, instead.

It was risky. The were kids upstairs, satisfied, for the moment, with their tv shows. It was anyone’s guess how long that would last…but oh, what the hell, I said to myself, and for the first time, in a very, very long time, I unzipped my flute’s soft outer case, unclipped the silver fastens of the black case inside, and dug out the accompanying, overflowing tote bag of sheet music.

Hello Pergolsei Concerto in G…Hello Chaminade Concertino for flute and piano…Hello Doppler Fantasie Pastorale Hongroyse.

And suddenly, it was as if we had never been apart.

And just like that, I was 15 again, shuttling back and forth to Hoff-Barthelson Music School in Scarsdale; my week a symphony of musical activity:  Monday afternoon: flute lesson. Thursday afternoon: chamber ensemble. Sunday afternoon: flute choir. Every evening after dinner:  drilling scales and concertos in preparation for the next recital, the next audition, the next concert, just over the horizon.

And what was it all for?

My unabashedly hopeful adolescent dreams. “I am going to become a professional musician” I would say to anyone who asked. As a sophomore and junior beginning to think about college, my short list of choices contained all of the bests: Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, NYU. Maybe even someday, I once said to myself, “I might even play in the New York Philharmonic.”

Hopeful, indeed.

And then just like all those musical notes that ascend and then ultimately descend, my lofty visions crumbled when I was 17, in the wake of a comment from my flute teacher, whose musical talents I revered and sought to emulate. It was her stinging critique, at the end of a lesson one day that utterly deflated me.

“I just don’t think you have what it takes. I just don’t see you making it, in the professional music world. I think you might want to consider some alternative options.”

I just don’t think you have what it takes.

I have often used this story to explain my life path, both to others and to myself. How and why I went from music school to rabbi school. I have often explained that I left the flute because I decided that I wanted to be a rabbi, instead. I have often explained that I left the flute because I found my real life calling.

But now, after returning to my flute for the first time in almost 20 years, I realize, that there was something else that prompted me to put down the flute and walk away. And that something else, was my own, internal shame.

Who was I to think, that I could be good enough to get into Juilliard?

Who was I to think, that I could contend and compete with musicians, whose years of training far surpassed mine?

And…God forbid…what if my flute teacher ended up being right?

Shame is a terrible thing to feel.

Not only does it make us feel small, but it has this astounding way of persuading us to leave good parts of who we are on the table, and then walk away, from some of the best within ourselves. It obfuscates our ability to see a third option. A middle ground. A space, a possibility, in-between Juilliard, and nothing at all. 

And so I zipped up my shame along with my flute case, and vowed to store both of them away, for good.

It is not easy for me to talk about something that, for years, has been a private source of shame. But I sense, that I am probably not alone.

I have a feeling, especially in today’s world, that there is plenty of shame, and the regret that comes with it, to go around.

I have a feeling, that none of us need to think too hard or dig too deep to return to that time, or those times, of seeing ourselves as small, inadequate, unworthy. 

Like a scar that never goes away, our scars of shame remain with us, no matter how much time has passed.

Perhaps for you – it wasn’t Juilliard.

Perhaps for you, it was another academic degree, or accreditation.

Or a job loss, or a lay-off. 

Or a marriage or a relationship that didn’t work out.

Or the weight that wouldn’t come off.

Or the mental illness that derailed best-laid hopes and dreams.

Or the inability to care for, or be there for, a loved one. Or the inability to see that a loved one was sick, to begin with.

Or, as a new mother, or father, the inability to care for a new baby, in the way that all the parenting magazines say that we should. 

It was hard enough, as it was.

It was hard enough, before 2020 set in.

And now, with the coronavirus and all of its accompanying wreckage, there is so much more potential for self-flagellation; so much more reason to be unkind and unforgiving to ourselves; so much more room for those searing, dehumanizing, paralyzing feelings of shame to seep in…or, perhaps return from the depths…and then slowly, slowly rise to the surface of how we are in the world, with ourselves and with others.

Shame, for having to become dependent on that weekly unemployment check.

Shame, for all the hours I’ve let my kids sit in front of a screen in the struggle to cope and keep up with it all.

Shame, because I cannot work and homeschool my kids at the same time.

Shame, for not having done enough to help curb racism and systemic injustice in the midst of it all.

Shame, because my friend or neighbor or co-worker seems to be managing just fine right now, and so why the hell can’t I?

And then, because shame is a terrible thing to feel, how tempting it can be, to zip up and store away anything and everything that is a reminder of that shame. A skill. A passion. A hobby. A relationship. An identity. A memory. Leaving us, with stacks of boxes and bins, piled downstairs, in the basements of our souls. Piles of boxes, containing important parts of ourselves, puzzle pieces of who we are, sacred songs that we might never bring to the world.

And what is more, with the accumulation of those boxes, comes a sense of profound imbalance about who we are and what we are capable of. Either I can be the person I want to be, or I can’t. Either I can be the spouse or the parent or the friend or the caregiver that I hope to be, or I can’t. Either I can be the artist or the musician or the athlete or the writer that I expect myself to be, or I can’t.

But maybe Claude Debussy and those ancient stargazers were on to something. Maybe – when we reach for that North Star and fall short – rather than falling down, down, down, into a dark, black, basement of nothingness or unworthiness, maybe we are able to imagine ourselves landing, instead, into a precious space between. A balanced, middle ground, in-between the notes and in-between the stars, where, maybe, the real music unfolds. Where, maybe, real life unfolds. Where maybe our fullest and truest selves, can unfold.

Every year on Yom Kippur we weigh or lives and our deeds underneath a scale made out of stars. The zodiac constellation for this time of year is the Libra – the scales – named after the unit of weight from ancient Rome. In Hebrew, the Libra scale is called “moznaim” which literally means “balances.” In both sacred and secular terms, this time of year is a time for balance. This is the time of year when the days and the nights become equally balanced in length. And this is the time of year, in our Jewish calendar, when we consider the ways that our thoughts and our deeds have the ability to slowly tip the scales in one direction, or the other.

And, yet, the nearly equal length of day and night is probably the only thing that feels balanced in the world right now. With every new catastrophe that unfolds, it feels as though one side of the scale keeps tipping, slowly, slowly, under the weight of so much chaos and pain.

There is no doubt, it is going to take a hell of a lot of work to lift that scale off the ground. More work than can probably be done in one lifetime. I wish I could see into a crystal ball and know, for sure, that scales will eventually realign and that everything will be ok.

But there is one thing that I think I know, for sure. What I think I know, is that the world’s balance hangs precariously upon our own. If we are weighed down, or paralyzed, by feelings of shame, unworthiness, inadequacy, then it is as if we are trying to lift that giant scale from the ground, with only one arm.

What’s in your basement?

What are the pieces of yourselves – the passions, the skills, the identities, the relationships, or the things that you simply used to love doing, that you have zipped up, and stored away? What are the long-abandoned parts of yourselves that, if unearthed, might help you bring more music, more meaning, more light, or more love into this world?

In all likelihood, I would not have gotten into Juilliard. Or made it to the Philharmonic. And after all these years, I have made peace with that, because I have discovered another passion and another life path that brings me tremendous fulfillment, and joy.

But after all these years, I now realize that I could have and should have been playing the flute, all along; I now see that there could have been a third door, a balanced, middle ground between all or nothing, if only I had had the wherewithal to look for it. If only my internal shame hadn’t gotten in the way of my ability to see that it was there.

There is a mantra that I carry with me, and, maybe, you might wish to carry it, as well. It goes something like this: We are never as bad as we think we are or as they say we are…nor will we ever be as perfect as we hope or expect ourselves to be. All of the music and all the gifts that we bring to the world will always exist somewhere in-between: somewhere in the middle of the ongoing, unfolding scales of our lives.

I think I now have a better sense of who created the starry scales in the sky, and a deeper appreciation for the one who looked to the spaces between the stars and created so much music and so much majesty. 

It must have been someone like me – and, maybe, someone like you.

It must have been someone who found herself feeling small and insignificant, against the vastness of it all.

It must have bee someone searching for balance – for some middle ground – between exceptionalism, and utter unworthiness.

It must have been someone who looked to the stars for answers, for guidance – and, there, between the stars and between the scales, found herself a place, squarely in the middle – just where she needed to be.

In the middle. That is where I am going to strive to be, as well. And maybe I’ll meet you there – and, together, we’ll make beautiful music, capable of souring upwards towards the stars – and beyond.