This past Shabbat I joined a group of great friends after services for lunch and a few hours of study. (My favorite kind of Shabbat: prayer, food, Torah, nap.) We talked about the looming specter of Elul, and how to get ready for deep and intense days to come. I know I need to prepare, but am never quite sure what that means. Classes and books help, but when they're done I often feel like the big, elusive secret is in that OTHER chapter, in the special edition only rabbis and really special people get to read. Last year I tried a mediation retreat, very unsatisfying thanks to a teacher who decided we needed to hear all about his brilliant contemplative life rather than muddling though our own. This year I will usher in the home stretch with joy (a friend's wedding later this summer) partly obscured by the low hum of sadness. Perhaps that's key to beginning anew, learning how to embrace sorrow and happiness with equal measures of gratitude.
For the past few years, most of my preparation happened unwittingly when I entered the consuming, cleansing state of concentration required to learn the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. But I know them now. I have to figure out a different tactic of distraction. I do have sort of a plan: I'm starting to run again, in hopes that repetitive, exhausting physical activity, combined with a regular dose of trees, will yield calm and clarity. A question for my handful of dear readers: how do you prepare? No matter if it's for the High Holy Days or sacred moments in other traditions, the dilemma is the same--how to get ready for a time of self-awareness and self-truth in the presence of God.