2012. I am standing at the shore of Lake Michigan – the Chicago side. I am wearing my signature orange peep-toe wedges, a tweed dress that hangs on my 12-pounds-thinner-than-usual body, and throwing torn up pieces of bread into the water.
It is Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, and the bread is part of a Jewish New Year custom called tashlich — the emptying of one’s pockets into moving water, a symbolic casting away of one’s sins. Rabbis of generations past frowned upon the practice, fearing people would not do the hard work of the Days of Awe – of self-examination and making of amends – if they engaged in this ritual, that they would forget that the practice was mere metaphor and would count on the casting to absolve them of their misdeeds.
But I am not casting away sins. (I don’t really believe in them.) Instead, I am casting off an identity, a role I’ve played … as partner and wife. For in this moment I intuitively know that I am now divorced. I can feel it in my bones.
My husband and I have filed dissolution of marriage paperwork in a county that does not require a court appearance, sending off an envelope containing a divorce agreement, our signatures and a notary stamp four weeks earlier. I know that the clerk in this small county signs divorce papers on Mondays. It is Monday.
I move towards my rabbi. “I think I’m divorced,” I say.
“Well, you are pretty intuitive,” he replies.
“I’m going to cast away my Mrs.”
He nods and smiles at me sadly; and I return to the lake, flinging stale bits of challah into the still waters and mumbling something about Dr.’s wife and Mrs. Robertson – a name I never took.
When I return home that afternoon, I call our mediator who checks a database and affirms, “Yes, you are divorced.”
2019. I am still talking about this, writing about this.
Sunday night, erev Rosh Hashanah. A different rabbi asks us to turn to the person nearest us and share what we would like to let go of and what we would like to make room for in the Jewish Year 5780. I turn to my left and tell another rabbinical student that I would like to let go of my ex-husband, my marriage and my divorce as part of my narrative, and that I would like to make room for love.
I am still talking about it.
Tuesday afternoon, I am co-leading a tashlich ritual at a creek just off of campus at the University of Delaware. I tell the story of 2012 — sans peep-toe wedges and dress hanging from my frame — and invite the small group gathered to consider if there is a piece of their identity that no longer fits. Perhaps a role in a romantic relationship or in their family of origin or at work. Maybe a character attribute or behavior they are known for and no longer wish to be.
I ask them to share this with someone near them, either before or after emptying the contents of their pockets – the contents of their hearts – and to consider that in casting off, they might create space for something new … as in my case, when I traded in the role of wife for ex-pat in 2015 and rabbinical student in 2019. I am still talking about it.
I step away to do my own casting off … except I can’t. There is too much chatter around me and there is nowhere to go to let go. So I hold on, until today, when I duck into Carpenter’s Woods, just a few blocks from my house.
I scramble down a dirt and stone path to a clearing where a small, wooden footbridge hovers over an “almost” stream. I don’t have any bread. My pockets are empty. I bend down and pick up a couple of fallen leaves, fold them — once and then again — and rip them into pieces.
As I drop the bits of leaves into the pooled water, I whisper something about letting go of my insistence that my 15-year relationship have no place in my current narrative, my expectation that I should no longer have anything to say about it or him or us. Nothing about letting go of this “former identity.” Nothing about creating space for the universe to rush in.
My words surprise me.
I will always be Lee’s ex-wife. Just as I will always be a massage therapist and a writer — whether or not I get paid for it. Just as I will always have lived in Spain and San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Detroit – even if I don’t now. And even with all of those pieces of my identity firmly intact, there has always been room for “something new” — for a year of teaching in Madrid, for rabbinical school, and for a few juicy romances.
I have no shame in telling those other parts of my life, no expectations that I should be “done” with them, nor any desire to be. I wonder if the same could be true of my marriage and divorce.
Just then, the wooden footbridge begins to bounce. A man and his brown and white-speckled dog cross my path, signaling my ritual is nearly complete.
I pull my pockets inside out, say a prayer and begin my climb out.