I was fifteen years ago and miserable when I first went to a youth group Havdalah service one winter evening. I was living with my very difficult father in a big house, so much bigger now that my mother and siblings had moved out, and I was the loneliest I had or have ever been, having lost most of my extended family and living in the ‘burbs where even the neighbors stopped talking to us.
My deep sadness along with some suicidal thoughts had led my father to bring me to the rabbi of our synagogue, who promptly put me in the temple youth group. Now we were gathered for the short end-of-sabbath service (Sabbath begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sundown Saturday night). This eight minute or so service is all about the senses. Our bunch of awkward teens held each other in a circle and sang, first lighting the braided Havdalah candle, then passing around a spice box filled with clove and cinnamon, then taking sips from a cup of wine. At the end, someone aimed the wild twining flame of the candle into the leftover wine for a satisfying sizzle that signified the start of a new week.
I couldn’t know then it was the start of a new life for me. That youth group and especially Phil, a youth group advisor who took me under his wing, saved my life, giving me a sense of belonging, listening to what was broken in me, and believing in my ability to fix myself in time. After each Havdalah service, we sat in a circle sharing our thoughts on a topic, often writing first on a moment that changed our life, what we value most, or what was hardest for us. We cried, even and especially the guys. We hugged each other. We wrote fast and furiously in our journals. Some nights we have lock-ins, unfurling our sleeping bags on the bema (little stage where services are led from), and talking on and off long into the night. We spoke things aloud we couldn’t tell anyone else. Together, we made a kind of mosaic of all our broken pieces, then had donuts and orange juice for breakfast.
It’s no wonder that a lot of my workshops, sans sleeping together on a carpeted stage, involve the same. We write and read. We speak our truths. We learn to listen to each other, and from that, to ourselves more. We discover what we most have and need to say, and where those words and callings lead us in our work, art, service, and purpose.
How I got from sitting in the dark with my youth group to facilitating workshops, coaching people on writing and right livelihood, and collaborating with wonderful co-teachers on life-giving projects followed a long and meandering river of time, intentions, jobs, gigs, and listening to what signs and wonders pointed the way. I now make a living doing things I couldn’t have imagined as a teenager, from facilitating writing workshops for two dozen people living with serious illness over Zoom to planning an online and Zoom-based intensive class with Kathryn Lorenzen on Your Right Livelihood.
But I still write in my journal, sometimes sharing what comes with others, sometimes even crying at the release of what needs to be said and what difference saying it makes. I still love and treasure what can happen when humans put down, to paraphrase Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, their sword and shield, and come into the courageous, vulnerable wisdom we make space for together.
These defining moments are sprinkled throughout our lives, sometimes in unlikely places or at surprisingly young or old ages. We turn a corner, see something out of the corner of our eye, wake up in the middle of a January night with a start, meet the eyes of a stranger in the produce aisle, and something clicks into place. We might not know where that something is leading us, but we know we need to follow. As W.S. Merwin writes in his poem, “The Gift”: “I must be led by what was given to me/ as streams are led by it/ and braiding flights of birds.”
This braided candle of community, creativity, and meaning was given to me when I was fifteen and its light still shines and leads me on.