The day I bought my first computer I also bought a fountain pen.
What can I say? I like balance. There’s a lot to be said for equilibrium in life. I don’t remember a lot of talk about self-care or keeping oneself balanced when I was in school. Those discussions came later. The rabbinate can be an all-consuming profession and it can be very easy to neglect ourselves even as we are providing care for others. But as a Midwesterner, and an accountant’s daughter, I like things to balance.
Four and a half years ago I took a job outside the Jewish community as a hospice chaplain. It’s work I love; work that makes my soul sing. I spend a lot of my time talking with people about their lives, their loves, their joys, and their disappointments. We talk about meaning and relationships. We tell stories. We laugh and we cry. It is, for the most part, an amazing life-affirming job. But when you work in hospice you can’t ignore the Angel of Death. You can sometimes hold him off or push back against him, but in the end the Angel of Death is always hovering, his arrival imminent.
Spending time at the end of life is a lesson about the preciousness of life. Talking with families about estrangement or about decades of love, watching people die alone or surrounded by family and friends, seeing the families we create as well as the families we are born into all serve as a reminder that our relationships are worth so much more than our possessions. And as people share the stories of their lives it is clear that our relationships are, at times, more fragile than our possessions.
When I began hospice work, I also became a volunteer mikveh guide. It was important to me to do something spiritual and life-focused to balance the spiritual end-of-life focused work I do every day. Mikveh guiding puts me in a quiet, peaceful, sacred space where I am blessed to have one-on-one interactions with people. It keeps me connected with the Jewish community. The mayyim hayyim is my counterweight to the Malach HaMavet.
We mikveh guides joke about the “sacred laundry.” Part of the guide’s job is to reset the prep rooms after the immersees leave. We pick up the wet towels and sheets and bathmats, empty the garbage cans, wipe down the showers, bathtubs and counters and put out fresh supplies for the next person to use. Everything should be nice and neat and clean so the next user can focus on the experience of their immersion, not on the “tools” that help facilitate it. In the back room there is a washer and dryer for the “sacred laundry,” the towels, sheets, and bathmats. When it’s quiet, between immersions, we fold the laundry and put it away.
We don’t talk about “sacred laundry” in the hospice world and yet the work done by the home health aides, facility staff members, and families is sacred. They too take care of laundry, pick up garbage, wipe down equipment, and reset rooms. They don’t show up for a two-hour shift in a calm and peaceful place; they are present for weeks, for long hours, in chaos, dealing with the unknown, with the messy, scary parts of life. They are searching for balance, for equilibrium, in a world that has fallen off course. I am humbled by their presence, by their spirit, by the love they show.
Many of us search for ways to find balance in our lives. It’s not always as clear-cut as placing a fountain pen opposite a computer. But sometimes it’s a simple as facing the unknown with actions and with love.
Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT was ordained from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City in 1982. She received her Doctor of Ministry degree from HUC-JIR in 1996 and Certification in Thanatology (the study of death, dying, and Bereavement) from the Association for Death Education and Counseling in 2010. She is a chaplain with Care Alternatives Hospice in Marlborough, MA. She has been a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim since 2008.