Circles & Lines

I went on a date last week with a poet — dollar oysters in Highland Park. I’d mentioned I’d recently moved back to Los Angeles after a number of years in Israel, and she asked me to describe the difference. What came out of my mouth surprised me.

I said that I felt that much of my life in Israel (in Jaffa specifically, and mostly as part of an english-speaking semi-observant Oleh community) felt defined by “circles”: the weekly circle of the Sabbath, the monthly circle of the new month and new moon, and the annual circle of the seasons and the holidays. Many members of our community came to Israel out of a desire for a fuller expression of Jewish practice, and so there were many legs on which to set the table of a classical Jewish cultural experience.

As a consequence, it often felt as though we were safely nestled in a container of cyclical experience — always something to look forward to, new yet familiar. There was an amazing sense of ease which came from knowing that every a few days, I would see a number of the people I knew — that I didn’t need to be constantly fighting for social survival. I could trust that relationships would develop organically over the never-ending stream of unplanned interactions secured by our cyclical practices. As long as I kept filling the watering can, life (and intimacy) would grow. Emotionally, the traditional scripts we followed supported critical inner work — the lighter emotional cycles of the Sabbath, the weekly breath, followed by the more intense monthly cycles of moon and seasonal theme, and then by the annual cycle of major celebrations and reflections (with more advanced seven and fifty year cycles on top). We were all going along for a ride that had been running for thousands of years. There was no destination in mind, only a continual practice of process. It was wonderful, and there was nothing to fear. Each week we sang the same songs, and they just kept getting better.

Returning to Los Angeles, I said, I was initially struck by the strong contrast of “line” — a desire to do, create, get, change. A drive to get from here to there, to be world-historical. Where circles provides emotional support and spiritual strength, lines provide meaning and orientation and purpose in the world. But drive and pursuit are lonely — as they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss. Nothing grows where there is only linear motion, and it is not good to be alone. It is frightening, to leave the circle.

Ultimately, it seems as though we must strive to balance our lines and our circles — to favor one over the other seems like the road to an anxious discontent. It is good to have a driving purpose, and to challenge yourself with uncertainty, but also to have a structure in which you can let go and know that everything is as it should be, and that you are fine, and are safe. On the other hand, to be too content is to exit from the world, and to withhold the gifts that are yours alone to discover and to give.

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