As I crossed over a bridge with a friend one breezy spring morning, I noticed movement in the water beneath us. Peering over the railing, we saw a rather large turtle paddling through the channel and heading in our direction. Pausing and picking its head out of the water, she seemed to look directly at me with her straightforward, beady eyes and I was suddenly filled with a sense of joy and wonder.
I turned excitingly to my friend and explained that in my life coach course, taking “turtle steps” are a way to describe the small steps someone can make towards change. We laughed knowingly because I have spent the last year making slow changes towards reconnecting with my authentic self which has, in turn led to recharging my joy in my service to Hashem (G-d). Right after I finished my explanation of turtle steps, the turtle turned around and swam under water, disappearing from our sight.
My friend was amazed — she has walked that path hundreds of times before and has never seen a turtle in the channel. Since everything is hashgacha pratis (divine providence) , I believe that Hashem (G-d) was sending me a message of encouragement to continue along the path I was taking.
Years ago in my early twenties, I took turtle steps before when I had first started observing chassidic Judaism. Though I made changes slowly, the transition from a secular lifestyle to an observant one was pretty dramatic. The choice was completely my own and yet, even the slow pace did not prepare me for the internal upheaval that I experienced.
At first, I felt so much joy with the drastic change from a secular lifestyle to a more divine focused one. As difficult as it was regarding family and friends, keeping shabbos and other mitzvos was exciting. The newness of applying jewish values to everything was refreshing and uplifting. Learning another halacha (jewish law) was like “Oh, wow – this is terrific!” Breaking my teeth to daven and say brachos was challenging in a good way. And serving Hashem (G-d) felt joyful.
However, over time, I just got caught up in rote service and making it through the day. I recognize now, as a 48 year old woman, that I had neglected to take certain parts of me along with that transition. The result was that I felt disconnected from myself, burnt out and lost the joy in my service. The inner wisdom and intuition that led me back to my faith got buried along with the secular values that I had rid myself of. I was practicing authentic Judaism, but not from an authentic place within me. Over the course of a year, I took some simple courses of action that helped me reconnect with myself and from there, my joy was recharged.
I first started by making collages. A large part of being an orthodox woman means being continually aware of the needs, wishes and emotions of family and community. Karla Mclaren, in her book “The Art of Empathy,” mentions that expressing creatively “can help us develop a deeper intrapersonal awareness” and therefore balance the needs of others without depleting ourselves. I was not only feeling depleted, but I had lost touch with myself in the day to day effort of managing a family, navigating the frum school system and overall adapting myself to a lifestyle that was culturally foreign to the one I was raised in. Collaging opened me up to my inner well of creativity, reconnecting me with my authentic self.
I purchased an assortment of used magazines and colorful books from second hand stores (Half-Price Books has many for cheap) and cut-out pictures and words that *jumped* out at me. I randomly chose ones that felt good to me and glued them onto large pieces of paper taken from scrapbook albums. Sometimes I had the time to arrange the pictures artistically and sometimes I just stuck them on paper randomly.
In between carpools, preparing meals and phone calls I found some time to cut and paste. Sometimes, my children would join me and other times, friends would. I felt recharged when I did this bit of self-care and self-expression. Simply reconnecting with this creative side of myself opened the door to rediscovering my individuality, my inner makeup.
The process was joyful (and made the stark, cold, Chicago winter actually bearable!) because my senses were filled with calming words and “feel- good” pictures of luscious gardens, colorful flowers and peaceful nature scenes. I found that reconnecting with my own authenticity allowed me to be more authentic in my relationship with Hashem (G-d).
The next step I took was having my handwriting analyzed. I had heard that one’s handwriting is an expression of the inner workings of the mind. It reflects personality and the way one feels towards themselves. The hand writes, but it is the brain that directs. Not only do the attitudes we have towards ourselves get reflected by how we form the letters, but the movement of pen on paper reinforces those attitudes. I wanted insight into my personality that the analyzing could bring.
Yehudis Karbal, a therapist in Chicago, suggested that I send a sample of my handwriting to her sister, Dr. Miriam Adahan, a psychologist in Israel who is adept at graphology. I did so and was awed by the accuracy of Dr. Adahan’s assessment. Her analysis of my personality was right on target. I decided that I would change my handwriting and see if that would change some aspects of my personality that may have been affecting my ability to “show up” confidently as a Jewish woman in the many roles I played. I found a book that was helpful, and practiced different letters as I listened to a shiur or spoke on the phone to a friend.
I found this process relaxing and felt empowered as I took steps to change . My confidence increased and I began to garden, write poetry and train as a life coach. I felt myself waking up and discovering more joy in serving Hashem (G-d) in all the different ways that were available to me. These joyful activities were the outer expressions of the inner creativity that Hashem (G-d) had specifically invested in me.
Around the same time, I started an abundance and gratitude journal. A few mornings a week, I spent some time jotting down five things that I was grateful to Hashem (G-d) for and five things that I found abundantly in my life. I jotted down things like waking up and having the ability to see or hear. I recognized the abundance of oxygen and wrote that down. If there was an abundance of flowers in the garden or bird song, I added that to my journal. I wanted a paradigm shift of noticing the good and plentiful that Hashem put in my life.
Once I got into the habit of doing these exercises, I added a few sentences of “what I did right” (instead of always focusing on what I did wrong, or not enough of) and “what that says about me”. For example, “I cooked a good meal for my family”, “I had a nice talk with my child” “I scheduled a dentist appt.” What this says about me is that I care for my family’s needs, I give time to my child, I take my health seriously. All this shows good decision making, caring and prioritizing.
I know for myself and my friends that it is so easy to chastise ourselves for the mistakes we feel we are making with our spouses, our children, our community, our homes, our jobs etc. Though we know this is a trick of the yetzer hora, it seems that many of us fall for it and are left feeling down. When I started to focus on my positive behavior by writing it down, I felt empowered and uplifted .
I used this brief exercise of spending a few moments a day recognizing abundance, gratitude and positive actions to provide me with a slight shift in perspective. I felt more gentle and kind with myself as I began my day and I got more in the habit of recognizing the good that Hashem (G-d) brings me in my life (even a parking space on a crowded street) and the good I was doing in my little world.
So, back to the turtle. The small steps of going within were gentle and slow, but accomplished a change in direction for me. I reconnected with my inner voice and creativity through collaging; I strengthened my good qualities through handwriting changes and journaling. By consciously recognizing abundance in my life, I increased my appreciation for all the good bestowed upon me. The resulting recharge of joy in serving Hashem (G-d) was worth it.
I invite readers to play with some of these suggestions and notice if you feel uplifted, recharged and more joyful.
Collages : all that is needed is paper or cardboard, glue sticks and a scissor. Cut out whatever feels good to you (without thinking any “shoulds or shouldn’ts”) and paste on surface. You can make it artistic or sloppy – the most important thing is to recognize and feel what speaks to you uniquely.
No comparing with someone else – To Compare is To Despair (that is why social media can be so damaging – notice how you feel after spending time browsing the internet and facebook – do you feel uplifted or down?, what thoughts are you having and how many ”shoulds”are you “shoulding”?)
Handwriting: if you would like to change some personality patterns that you sense are not serving you, do some research and find a handwriting analyst or a “change your handwriting” book and practice forming letters differently. It is a slow practice, but can be quite relaxing and meditative. A few minutes a day or a few times a week can shift some old, negative thought patterns.
Gratitude, Abundance and “What I did Right” Journal: Buy a pretty journal and spend a few minutes a day or week jotting down five things that you feel grateful to Hashem for (and if it involves another person, you could even share it with them), five things that you recognize abundance in and five things that “you did right”.
Even things as simple as making dinner for your family or doing laundry can be acknowledged as kind and caring behaviors on your part. It shifts your perspective from negative to positive and is empowering and uplifting, therefore inspiring you to do more.
Miriam Racquel Feldman specializes in personal coaching for women. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org