I am 11 years old, in a small stucco chapel on an American army base in southern Germany, attending a Wednesday night songfest of hymns. The pews are wooden, the carpet blue, and the low prayer stools meant for Catholic services are folded in. Because this is a military base that must include everyone stationed here, Jesus can be positioned so that he shows (for the Catholics) or is hidden (for the Protestants). Tonight he does not show.
Outside, it is the Cold War. 1961. A stone wall with barbed wire left over from Hitler’s era circumvents the base, making this a lone outpost in the Alps. Inside, we are singing The Old Rugged Cross, and then Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, and then Rock of Ages. My music teacher at the Dependents’ School leads us, playing the piano or sometimes the autoharp. From my seat a few rows from the front, I keep looking up to read the wall plaque that lists each hymn’s page.
I’m not here because my parents insist that I come. No, I have walked here alone from our nearby apartment because I love the music, its passionate poetry, and the way that some people close their eyes and look upwards, as if communing with something out there, something I haven’t discovered yet, but can sense in a corner of my heart, a tiny opening to the inexplicable; something that unseals my longing, for what, I don’t know, but it is raw and tender, and expands my small universe in ways I already sense I will never be able to explain to anyone. I love the way the music buoys my life for a while so that my mother’s loneliness in this foreign country and my father’s long absences to prepare for the next war fade into background. I love the peace that fills me on these evenings.
At the end of the songfest, while everyone still stands talking before heading out into the snowy night, I see my friend Alma Elmore take her mother’s hand, and I watch as the two of them prostrate themselves in front of the altar, their foreheads touch- ing the carpet. Mrs. Elmore drapes her arm over her daughter’s back and they lay there for the longest time, praying, I guess, perhaps crying. Their full skirts circle behind them like moments that I sense will travel with me, further and further, concentri- cally, along the trajectory of my life-to-be. No one in the chapel seems to think it’s strange that Alma and her mother lie there, prone, unself-conscious. No one asks them to get up. No one asks if anything is wrong.
With one hand still on my hymnal and the other touching the back of a pew, I stare, embarrassed at first, but also moved by both their liberty and their humility. A tension of opposites holds me. On this army base of stiff uniforms and tattooed forearms, guns in bedroom closets and rucksacks always at the ready, I am not accustomed to seeing women stepping into their own, stepping into something publicly private. Alma and Mrs. Elmore do not move for the longest time, and neither do I, transfixed by something both vulnerable and definitive.
Alma and I never speak of this, not in school and not at our Girl Scout meetings. Her family rotates back to the U.S. in the chess game the government plays with our lives. I will miss my shy, tall friend, the bent of her shoulders, her hair in sausage-like rolls—old-fashioned even then. I will mourn her for a while, but a new girl will come, and we will make room for her because this is what the children of soldiers do.
But this uncensored moment doesn’t rotate or move, doesn’t make room for another. This moment stays with me.
oom for another. This moment stays with me.
And now, decades later, as a converted Jew for the sake of marriage, I often live with that night, far away, in a tiny stitch of the Alps. I think I recognize what Alma’s mother might have felt.
Sometimes, during the Jewish High Holy Days, when I listen to the cantor in her white robe chant the medieval Hineni prayer that translates as “Here I Am”, a wave blows through me and unmasks my life. It opens my heart, though I hadn’t known it was closed, I had no idea. It connects me for a brief moment to everything, to the nub of what it means to be alive, to terror, to joy. And when the cantor prostrates herself in front of the Torah, I feel how close I am to the portal of the unknown, a journey of faith. The stubborn hinges of my life burst open: Here I am.
After my 36-year marriage painfully ended, my heart burst like that. There was no getting away from the fragility that made me feel empathy for every suffering thing. I needed a ritual to help me; the signed papers were not enough. I needed time to be cleaved in two, like a child might need a parent’s blessing before leaving home.
On a raw afternoon, I entered a mikveh, its simple structure adhering to ancient standards for ritual cleansing. In a room with a square four-meter pool of collected rain, uniform through the centuries, I stood naked as the moment of my birth before a mirror, repeating the Hineni prayer as I prepared myself for dunking. Hineni, I said. Here I am.
I was alone, proclaiming my presence, after my husband left me. Hineni. I was in a fractured universe with a song of sorrow on my tongue. Hineni. Without a plan, without a place to live, staring back at my wild eyes in the mirror, my middle-aged belly. I was as present in my life as was humanly possible. Suddenly, in the mirror, naked, the image of Alma and her mother leapt across the decades and cracked my heart wide with the force of humility. Prayers haloed out like ecstatic vibrations erasing self, inscribing open, porous impermanence.
I was back in that army chapel, Alma taking her mother’s hand and the two of them prostrating themselves, reaching for me, keeping me company. I understood as never before how aloneness meets mystery. Bombs could drop, the Soviets could attack at any moment, we could all be killed; release was the only path to transformation, no matter what religion, what creed.
I walked down the tiled steps and lowered myself into the warm living waters, dunking under once, then praying, dunking again, then again, like some primordial creature dying and being reborn at the same time. Let the waters take you, the female rabbi had said. Let the old float away, the new come towards you. As she spoke, I began to experience the water itself as prayer. As hope.
No one in the chapel thinks it’s strange that Alma and her mother lie there, prone, unselfconscious, I remembered. No one asks them to get up. No one asks if anything is wrong.
I felt alive.
Here I am.