“All religious rituals, perhaps like all art, are attempts to gesture toward what cannot be spoken, to invoke it and make it palpable, a sense of the world too immense to be summed up in words without sounding like prattling children.”
Jonathan Safran Foer
New American Haggadah
Passover comes early this year, the evening of March 25. As I write, Al is working on the kitchen, doing the final cleaning and kashering and countertop covering before we switch all our dishes over to the kosher-for-Passover cookware and red-and-green glass settings that were once his mother’s. It’s a lot of work, if you observe all the stringent Jewish laws around Passover food preparation—and the source of much good-humored communal kvetching: If this is the Feast of Freedom, then why do we feel like slaves in the kitchen?
This annual cleaning ritual is just one step in the process of prodding yourself to focus on retelling the story of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt. Upending your kitchen, removing all traces of leavening from the home to recall how our ancestors left in such haste that they couldn’t wait for bread to rise, causes you to stop and examine not only your surroundings, but your intentions:
How do you enslave yourself? What weighs you down in your life? What holds you back? What obstacles do you throw in your own path? What burdens can you lay down, freeing yourself to live a more fulfilling life of generosity, gratitude, grace and compassion?
Everyone who participates in the Passover seder is asked to imagine what it would feel like to emerge from slavery to freedom. There are so many ways we imprison ourselves. The ritual presents a formidable challenge, if you take it seriously.
Chronic health issues, of course, create their own form of imprisonment. Scleroderma, at its most virulent, feels like being trapped in your own skin. Other diseases bring their distinctive, cruel pains and restrictions. Our bodies, so complex and miraculous, can fail us in as many ways as we take them for granted.
But the feelings of constraint, the constant struggle against pain and physical limitations imposed by chronic illness, are only the first barriers to overcome—the barbed-wire-topped prison walls. The harder, interior cell to penetrate is the one the mind constructs.
I fight this all the time—that murmuring voice of angst, the one that worries, with each recalcitrant ulcer, whether I’ll get another infection that could land me on IV antibiotics; with each staircase that leaves me short-winded, how much harder it will be to get around in five years; with each additional minute it takes me to work around my clumsiness, how much longer I’ll be able to manage for myself.
I know this doesn’t help. I know I need to focus on the present and all I have to be grateful for. I know that catastrophizing is self-defeating. But the voice still murmurs.
Paradoxically, the key to unlocking this particular, insidious form of self-imprisonment isn’t to silence that voice, either through self-lectures on the impropriety of self-pity or sheer force of will. The more I try to suppress it, the more the murmuring seeps into my consciousness.
No. The only way to soothe the fears is to acknowledge them. Loss, and fear of more loss, is as understandable and human as it can be emotionally crippling. Chronic disease, whatever its form, brings losses. Giving yourself the gift to grieve what you’ve lost and feel self-compassion for what you’re going through is essential to coping, healing and moving forward.
After all the cooking and dishwashing and hosting and cleaning, after we’ve joined at the seder table with our cousins to retell the Passover story once again, that’s the release I’ll be seeking this year. And the one after that. And the one after that.
Image Credit: Illustration from Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, a book on phrenology by L.A. Vaught, 1902, Library of Congress Internet Archive, courtesy Public Domain Review.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.