I spent this Yom Kippur quietly at home, speaking more to God than to other people. Not every Yom Kippur has been that way; years came and went where I had so hurt the people near me, and in such vast numbers, that most of the holiday was spent on the phone, apologizing. The year I didn’t know how to make a clean break with a friend who was also a lover so I made a terrible break instead. The year I brushed off a friend who was suffering from depression because my pain felt too all-consuming to consider theirs. The year I realized that no matter how much I might love my siblings, I have not always been a very good sister.
I am beginning to understand that condition as youth, and my present lived reality as somewhere on the road between youth and adulthood, a condition which I am beginning to understand as life.
This year my offenses, to my knowledge, were largely between me and a higher power. I hadn’t hurt anyone directly so much as I had indirectly polluted my life and the lives around me with harsh thoughts and words and a general inability to control my Irish temper, which pairs super well with my Jewish guilt and Greek talent for nursing a grudge and a pint of the hard stuff simultaneously. I stayed in, I prayed, I cried, and I considered how I might do it better.
Today my mother emailed me about the family we’re supporting through school in Rwanda. I met Claudette, the matriarch, and her older daughter when I lived there a few years ago; her second daughter was born during my stay. It began with me paying school fees for one girl and has metastasized, over the years, into school fees for both girls and Claudette as well as the related costs of transportation and the actually still-related costs of life in general. We’re not the family’s sole means of income by any stretch, but it’s hard to focus on school if you’re worried about having enough food or safe housing or shoes that fit correctly. It all comes back around, and occasionally, some or all of it comes back around to us.
“Check on the pillow and bed situation,” my mom wrote. “I worry about that,” and I struggled to hold back tears. There’s atonement, and then there’s grief: grief for the suffering of my friends, grief for the things I haven’t gotten right when I had the chance, should have done better in the moment; grief for my mother’s kindness in a world of friends losing their mothers. And grief is memory: the memory of people I care about half a world away, the memory of extreme poverty I can do only a little to alleviate, the memory of the indulgent breakfast I had that first morning after Yom Kippur, when breaking the fast felt nearly literal, when so few people have one meal a day like the three I enjoy. And both memory and grief are atonement: I can do better and I will; I am grateful and I am sorry; I will hold you close and I will hold you up.
It’s both circular and cyclical; there’s atonement, there’s grief, and there’s memory, but there’s also grief, and memory, and atonement. Grief over a loss and a memory of that loss and atonement for all the ways you didn’t make it right or better first. Memory of something followed by grief over that something followed by atonement. Atonement that triggers a memory that triggers grief. Put it all in any box, call it Pandora, shake it and open it carefully — it isn’t a pattern or an order, it’s a reality. It’s the reality of living long enough to experience anything or to love anyone; it’s the reality of the small scale and the grand, of the mundane and ecstatic alike.
There’s atonement, there’s grief, and there’s memory. And the outcome of all three is this: there is gratitude. And there is love.