The Way Home: Rosh Hashanah 5780

When I was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, I was accepted into the Creative Writing concentration for my literature degree. I don’t know if it’s changed or not, but back then, most people didn’t get into the concentration until junior year, and some never got in at all. I was excited to workshop my poetry with other poets, and I couldn’t wait to learn with celebrated creative writing faculty.  My dream was to publish a novel or poetry collection one day, and I believed these workshops would help me make it happen. 

Kresge Bridge – Photo taken on Rosh Hashanah, 5780

The first course for the concentration started in winter quarter. It was a night class, and I remember the smell of damp redwoods on the bridge to Kresge college, the halos of lamplight in the fog. I also remember the faces of the women – they were all women – sitting around the table in that poetry workshop. One of them was always knitting, the clink of her needles punctuating her critiques. 

I did some of my best writing that quarter, but I also remember how awful it felt. How I looked up to the other writers in that workshop…and how I felt them looking down on me. I changed my words so many times attempting to win their praise. My reflective, narrative voice was too bland and status quo for the other writers. Even some of the poets I loved to read, like Mary Oliver, were written off as too predictable. 

Toward the end of the following quarter, I found myself in tears in the teacher’s office. I couldn’t explain what was wrong at first, but finally I heard myself say “I’ve changed my voice so many times, I can’t tell which voice is mine anymore.” 

Writing had always been home for me. It was my refuge, a place where I knew myself. When I felt lost, I could always write my way back. But after two quarters trying to impress the others in my workshop, home didn’t feel like home anymore. It was my house, but not my furniture, or it was like someone had come in overnight and rearranged everything, so that nothing felt familiar or true. It was worse than writer’s block. It was full on writer’s paralysis. My teacher was sympathetic and supportive. She recommended a workbook that I still love called The Artist’s Way. The exercises helped me find my true voice again, despite the noise of my nasty inner critic. The critic had always been part of me, and she probably always will be – but she had grown far louder over the course of those two workshops.

In fall of my junior year, I joined a different workshop group and I had a radically different experience. These writers lifted each other up, and focused on helping each other write from a place of authenticity, whatever that meant for each one of us. There was still plenty of critique, but it felt like something else entirely. My relationship with my voice began to heal, and writing felt like home again. I am still in touch with some of the writers from that workshop today. Shoutout to Facebook for the help with that. I’ve also become much closer with one of the women from the first two workshops, and I learned that I wasn’t the only one struggling to find my voice there. 

In the Rosh Hashanah Torah portion, Sarah expels Hagar from her home. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are bamidbar. Bamidbar means both “wilderness” and “desert” in Hebrew. Whenever anyone in the Torah is bamidbar, it means they are about to learn something about themselves – something challenging, deep, and powerful. Where was Moses when he found God in the burning bush, and learned that he would lead the Israelites out of slavery? Bamidbar. Where were the Israelites before they arrived at Mt. Sinai? Bamidbar – for forty years! If you’ve ever seen your grandparents try to give directions without GPS, you might understand why it took so long! But I digress. We had to get lost before we could find ourselves. 

During the Days of Awe, we talk a lot about tshuvah. Over time, it’s come to mean “repentance” or “atonement.” But the word itself actually means return. This is the season of returning – returning to the spark of Divine Light that lives inside each one us. Finding our way through the wilderness of our lives so that we can return to who we truly are. 

Hagar was bamidbar when she ran out of water, when she laid her son Ishmael beneath a tree because she couldn’t bear to see him die. She was exiled from her home and she felt alone and afraid. Hagar was never going to get Sarah’s approval, just like I was never going to get the approval I so desperately wanted from other writers in that workshop. Vayik-fe-kach Elohim et Ayneha – and then, God opened her eyes. Hagar saw a well. The Torah doesn’t say that God created a well. Hagar saw the well. Maybe it had been there all along, but Hagar needed help to see it. Hagar was not alone after all, and with God’s help, she returned – she found her way out of the wilderness. Sometimes, we need someone else to help us see the well that’s right in front of us. 

It’s a new Jewish year and a new school year. You have new classes, new homes, and some of you are new to UCSC. You may see all these new beginnings as an opportunity to reinvent yourselves. Maybe you want to try on a different voice, and then another, and another. Change can be exciting and scary. Face the wilderness with curiosity. Join all those student groups. Take a class in a subject you’ve never considered. This is the moment to do it. And remember, each of us has to explore our own personal wilderness before we can find the way home, before we can return to who we are. 

And when you do feel lost, when home doesn’t feel like home anymore, when you’ve lost sight of yourself – when you are bamidbar, like Hagar, Moses, and so many others before us – remember that you don’t have to find your way back alone. You can turn to a teacher or a mentor, who might recommend the right book at the right moment. You can reach out to an old friend, a partner, a parent, or God. As the new years begin, I encourage you to make a list for yourself – a list of the people you can turn to when you need to return. The ones who will hear you when you call out from your wilderness. The ones who remind you to open your eyes – because the well has been there all along. 

Shana Tova, everyone. May every journey bring you closer to the home inside of you. 

Kesem Farewell Speech

Delivered at Kesem Senior Luncheon, 2014

Oh Hey Camp Kesem! I’m Heather, or “Autumn,” and I have been the director for Camp Kesem at Stanford for the last four years. That means that I get to work on Camp Kesem year-round with a group of the most amazing students I’ve ever known, and it means I get to watch Camp Kesem change and grow over time. It also means that at senior luncheon, I get to take a few moments to thank the seniors and co-terms who are part of our Kesem family.

This is my fourth senior luncheon speech, and this time, unlike previous years, I am joining you in saying goodbye to Camp Kesem. I went back and read my previous speeches, which were filled with positive and hopefully inspiring advice to graduating seniors and co-terms. As with most advice, I found it far easier to share with others than to heed myself. Bring Kesem with you, I told them. You are the reason this community is so special. Kesem is what it is, for campers, counselors, and parents, because of what YOU bring to it. You can create caring communities wherever you go because you know what it means to be part of something like Kesem. The world needs more people like you and more communities like this one – more openness, more generosity, more compassion.

While I still believe this to be good advice, I also want to acknowledge that what we have at Kesem is special. As I’ve tried to imagine bringing Kesem into the rest of my life, I’ve realized that deep down, I know there really is no place like Kesem. We all understand that Kesem is so much more than a week long summer camp. It’s the way a camper smiles when he sees a group of his counselors who showed up to cheer him on at his middle school musical. It’s when a camper’s face lights up when she sees 15 of us at her dad’s funeral. It’s the comforting comment one parent offers to another who tells his story at New Family Orientation, while his son is outside playing his first round of Gaga. It’s the silence that falls on the room after the common ground activity at counselor training, when we understand for the first time just how much we share. The magic of Kesem is the community, and this community is a blessing to those it serves, but also for those who participate in building it.  As much as I’d like to think we can bring that community out into the rest of the world, there’s also magic in knowing that it exists in sacred space, and that nothing else can replace it.

So with this in mind, I turn to one more lesson I’ve learned from Kesem and our campers, perhaps the most important lesson of all – that letting go, like holding on, can be an act of love. Letting go does not mean forgetting. It means that our hearts surge with gratitude in moments of grief because we are so lucky, so deeply fortunate to have been part of this community. Four years ago, I chose Autumn as my camp name because change and transition are challenging for many of us, myself included. The trees are going through an immense change in the autumn season and they respond to this change with beauty – with vibrant oranges and deep reds and golden yellows. It’s a reminder that change can be a beautiful thing, and that at some point, we all must let go of our branches and catch the next gust of wind.

Seniors and co-terms, I’m so grateful that you’ve been on this journey with me, and I’m so excited for our last week of camp together. Thank you for holding on and letting go with me. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Edited to add/explain: I have been promoted within Hillel at Stanford. I will be supervising and supporting the new Camp Kesem director, who has been involved in Kesem for three years and is perfect for the job. I will stay involved in Kesem as a member of the advisory committee and I will provide support in any way that I can while empowering the new camp director, who deserves to have the amazing experience that I had. I will miss my direct and daily involvement with Kesem with all of my heart but I know that wonderful things are ahead and that I can support Kesem in other ways by supporting the new camp director.