A Divorcing Catholic Discovers Tashlikh

Last fall, I spent Rosh Hashanah weekend with a group of women in a rented house in Ventura, California, a beach town perched between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The plan was to have a simple Rosh Hashanah dinner together on Sunday night and then half our group would commute back to L.A. to attend services in the city and the other half—including me—would take a high-speed catamaran to Santa Cruz Island for a day of hiking and open-water kayaking, a way of communing with God through nature and starting the Jewish New Year.  

This was one of the first outings I’d made since telling my husband of 25 years that I no longer wanted to be married. Though J and I were still living in the same house, trying to make it to the time when our youngest of three would graduate high school eight months hence, things were tense. When he’d dropped me and my friend Rose at the train station that morning and learned from Rose that our plans included open-water kayaking—something we as a couple had long wanted to do—he left my bags at the station and took off in a huff, not bothering to say goodbye.

I am not Jewish, but I joined in the ritual meal that night with delight, asking questions about the food, the holiday of the New Year, the coming of Yom Kippur and its rituals, asking why Jewish holidays always start at sundown when, as Catholics, we always started our holy days with the new day. I loved the sundown rationale, the idea of walking through the darkness of night while waiting for the light of the holiday to bring illumination and clear-seeing into my life. That felt very much like the journey I was on—one of darkness and bumping around, feeling my way, stumbling, stubbing toes, waiting for a new day to dawn.

That night, one of the women explained Tashlikh as a ritual performed on Rosh Hashanah in which participants gather up crumbs (challah in our case) and carry them in our pockets to a place of running water—a stream, the ocean—and cast this bread upon the waters, letting go of all the sins of the past year. Our group hadn’t planned to undertake this ritual, but for me, it hit a spark.

Though I’d been no more sinful than usual in the preceding 12 months, I felt a deep need for forgiveness that my Catholicism had been unable to address, and I asked the women if they’d join me in performing Tashlikh. We took flashlights to the darkened beach, felt the sand that had been hot enough to burn our feet only a few hours earlier now cool and damp between our toes. The moon was almost nonexistent and the ocean’s waves made a scrim of lace barely discernible in the flashlight’s dim glow.

I meandered away from the group and felt the bread, sticking together in my hand. Reared in a devout Irish-Catholic home, I remembered making communion wafers out of Wonder Bread, its texture perfect—soft, white, pliable—to form little body-of-Christ discs. This challah felt different, with more edges and crust, sharp bits that bit into my palm like the pieces of glass that felt lodged in my lungs whenever I thought about leaving my marriage. I tore the bread into little pieces, lots and lots of pieces, for all the things I needed to surrender.

First off, being a devoted wife. I tossed a piece into the ocean. I had spent 25 years giving my heart and soul to my family only to find myself profoundly alone at the end of each day. That hadn’t always been the case, but for the past decade, I could no longer ignore the low-grade ache of loneliness that never left. I wanted to be a good wife, but it wasn’t working; the chasm between us had grown too vast to be closed. To stay in the marriage and fake devotion was to do us both a grave disservice. Still, I mourned the wife I had set out to be the day I made my marriage vows.

I tossed another piece—my desire to be a perfect mother. Together, J and I raised three wonderful young people. The work we did together as co-parents is a testament to our love of them and our desire to be the best parents we could be, a desire that trumped our need to be good spouses to each other.  In leaving, I would have to give up the mantle of the good mother. A good mother doesn’t leave her children’s father. A good mother keeps the family together at any cost, is the glue that binds it all together. My glue had long ago lost its stickiness.

I threw in bread for the marriage I thought I had been building all those years, for the household we’d created, for the house we’d lost to foreclosure 12 years earlier and the new house we’d managed to buy just a year and a half ago. I threw in a piece for the hardships we’d weathered together: J’s near-death from a pulmonary embolism, our second son’s near-drowning at age three, that same son’s diagnosis with a severe anxiety disorder in high school, the death of J’s mother and my father. We’d weathered those challenges as a couple—difficulties that might have ended the marriage long before this point—but rather than strengthening our bond, at some point, they saddled us with a burden we couldn’t quite escape.

I threw in bread for the young woman I’d been when I’d paired up with J—22, wide-eyed, looking for security at any cost—and reflected on the wiser and more flinty woman I’ve since become, now staring down the barrel of 50. I emptied my hands of the challah, letting go of all I knew. My tears mixed with the salty brine licking at my feet.

A week and a half later, Yom Kippur approached. Since Rosh Hashanah had been so spiritually helpful, I decided to observe that atonement holy day as well. I found it odd that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, preceded the Day of Atonement, that the sweetness of the New Year came first, apples dipped in honey, when the fasting had yet to begin. But maybe that’s human nature: we need a taste of the sweetness to lure us into doing the hard work.

I went to Catholic Mass in the morning on Yom Kippur and prayed my heart out. I learned that the Day of Atonement is a time to ask to be released from any contracts with God or with ourselves that we were unable to keep in the past year. And that’s what I prayed for: I acknowledged that I had entered into my marriage contract willingly and had said those words—till death do us part —of my own volition. But I could see now how unable I was to understand their meaning when I said them. I was, at the time, a woman with great emotional wounds. The daughter of an alcoholic and mentally ill mother, I was an untreated alcoholic myself seeking in a desperate way a man who would keep me from going crazy as she had, and perhaps get me to tone down the drinking. Now, with 23 years of sobriety and the clear vision that comes with it, I saw that I’d been  incapable of making those vows on my wedding day in any real way, too desperate for someone to save me from myself. I admitted this to God, kneeling at Holy Redeemer Church on Yom Kippur, asking divine forgiveness and love, requesting that I finally be released from the vows. I didn’t hear any angels singing God’s acceptance, nor did the heavens part and a dove descend. Tears flowed, snot ran, sniffles ensued.

I turned with fervor to Jewish rituals when Catholicism failed to offer me similar comfort.  I could have gone to the Sacrament of Reconciliation I’d long turned to, which used to leave me feeing freshly washed and new again, but what would I confess? That my husband and I had outgrown our marriage? That I couldn’t live a lie any longer?  In the sacrament of Reconciliation, Catholics receive absolution with the intention of going forward and sinning no more. I planned to go forward, straight into a divorce. At Reconciliation, a priest usually assigns penance as a way to make up for your sin: give to charity, say three rosaries, do good deeds without getting caught. I had lived my own self-inflicted penance; I couldn’t take any more.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, and as a Catholic, I’d always been a terrible faster, cheating every time I’d been given the chance. But this day felt epic. I needed to atone for my part in the end of this marriage. And so I fasted. Oddly, it was not nearly the ordeal I’d feared, and that told me something crucial. The things I fear and run from are the very things that, when I sit down calmly and face them, are not nearly as hard I’d anticipated. My stomach growled and I felt a bit weak, but the hours passed. I felt I was doing my part, and that was reward in itself.

At Yom Kippur services, I was heartened by the communal prayers and took solace in adding my voice to the collective plea for forgiveness. Receiving the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation would have required the admission that I had committed a specific, intentional wrong. I couldn’t do that. But on this Jewish holy day, I could claim my part in the often heartbreaking and hurtful side of the human condition. Sometimes we offend people, even when we don’t mean to. Sometimes, our best effort and fiercest desires to live up to the promises we make are not enough. Sometimes, we are just broken and in need of healing.

A few weeks later, I moved out of the family house into a one-room guesthouse with a Murphy bed, a tiny kitchenette and gorgeous west-facing windows that paint the wooden floors golden in the afternoon light.

I’m grateful that I didn’t realize beforehand how amazingly painful and grief-stricken this transition would be.  My heart on many days feels like it’s made of a warm and creepy Jell-O that leaks all over me, staining my hands that artificial red as I try to force it back into the shape of a heart, leaving a film of stickiness everywhere, a layer I cannot fully wash away.

Yet, now ensconced in my new place, I enact new rituals. I light candles, meditate, and allow myself to feel as deeply as I can, to breathe into my heart the pain of this transformation and to feel connection with all the other souls undergoing similar transitions. I walk to the grocery store and buy only that which I can carry home, a reminder that I’m on my own now and need care for myself first and foremost. I live a block from my daughter’s high school, and I lure her into joining me for homework or dinner or a sleep-over; I drive to the family home to help her with college applications. I’m learning how to be an active mother even when not sharing living quarters with my children.

I ache in a new way—not the old ache of loneliness within a coupled façade, but the bone-annihilating ache of reconstruction. I remember reading about caterpillars turning into butterflies. The caterpillar basically becomes mush, he ceases to exist as a caterpillar for the time of transformation and becomes a pile of juice, a clump of nothing more than wet potential for as long as it takes to reform as a butterfly. I’m in that mush state now. Neither wife nor single. Neither Catholic nor Jew. Neither full-time mom nor fully absent mom. Neither the scared young girl who said “I do” in a church all those years ago, nor the woman who has learned to live fully on her own.

I’m grateful for Tashlikh, for Rosh Hashanah, for Catholic Mass, for Yom Kippur, for candles and meditation, for my children’s willingness to try to understand my choice even though it hurts them, and for all the rituals—secular, spiritual, and motherhood-related—that are being redesigned to fit this new reality.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (May 2016, Counterpoint Press). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.