But my relationship with G-d became fractured when I ran away from home at 17. G-d had performed the ultimate miracle. He had helped me escape from my mother’s abuse. G-d had finally come through, had finally saved me. But my sisters were still being held captive by my mother’s mental illness. So my mental health deteriorated. I had nightmares about my mother every night. My physical health declined. I couldn’t hold down food. When I continued to pray to G-d, to beg on my hands and knees, it wasn’t the kind of relationship we had before. I was more reticent. My survivor’s guilt clouded my feelings towards G-d. I couldn’t understand why I had been spared and my sisters hadn’t.
My relationship with G-d became even more turbulent when my sisters finally ran away from home. Again, G-d had performed a great miracle. Two of my sisters had escaped with my help. But the seven-year-old was trapped. There seemed no way to rescue her from the nightmare we had feared most, that one of us would have to stay behind, that any of us would be separated from each other again. I couldn’t see the miracle of the pro-bono lawyers who helped me fight the war I waged in court against my mother to win custody of my 14-year-old sister. Instead, I was flooded with rage. I was angry that I had to fight a three-year custody battle. I was 21 and angry that none of “the adults” in my family wanted to help me. I was angry that I had to grow up too fast. When I looked for my childhood, I couldn’t find it. And I wouldn’t even ask G-d why He had put me on this journey. Instead, I turned away from Him.
My early twenties were a period of time when I “acted out” against the only parent I had ever truly known: G-d. I tried to self-destruct through troubled love affairs, through money mismanagement, through pure, unabashed hate. I wanted to carve the pain I felt out of my chest. I thought I would explode or implode from the terrible fits of anger that overcame me. I punched the walls. I screamed. I yelled. I took my rage out on others when I was done with taking it out on myself. I was certain that I finally hated my parents, that their neglect and their abuse made it obvious they hated me. And in that “they,” I included G-d too. When I prayed, I spat out these words with venom, “I hate you, G-d. I hate you. And I will never forgive you.”
But then things started to fall into place. I won custody of my sister. I found a steady job that turned into a glorious teaching career. I believed in G-d again. It was easier to believe in G-d when things were going great. I could see the master plan. I could finally see G-d more clearly in the good and the bad that had crossed my path. I bounced around wearing “G-d” spectacles and I could spot G-d everywhere. I prayed the way I had prayed as a child, through my teens. I regained the connection that I was sure had been irreparably singed through my early 20s. Renewed spiritually by my fervor, I decided to convert to Judaism.
And then my health failed again. My body exploded in pain. All the pain that I had felt throughout my childhood manifested itself in my bones, in my muscles, under my skin. For a moment, I considered whether or not I was being punished for giving up Jesus. But doctor after doctor prodded and probed until I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It was chronic, it was a life sentence and it was incurable. Physically, I had trouble holding a siddur (prayer book) in my hands and spiritually, I couldn’t find the will to pray anymore.
By the time I finally converted, I thought that it was G-d’s cruel joke that I couldn’t sit through a prayer service without feeling bone-crushing pain. Intermittingly, I picked up a siddur but I said the words listlessly. During the happy moments that would break through my depression, I would murmur my gratitude. But I felt like I was doing it with my back turned to G-d. I wasn’t angry at G-d. I was sad, almost terminally so.
I was sure that G-d had given up on me, sure that I was being overlooked. The space between us seemed infinite and never-ending. I didn’t know how to close it. The fire that had consumed our earlier relationship had blown out to tiny embers. What would happen to us if it never came back? Would I ever feel His invisible arms wrap around me on a windy day? Would I ever feel His breath on my face in the rays of sunlight on a clear day? Where are you, G-d? I wondered. Which one of us is lost? And how do I find my way?
When a friend, the mother of two young children, told me, “I wish I had time to pray.”
I nodded in agreement.
“I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom by myself,” she continued.
“That’s awful,” I said, knowing deep down that I had all the time in the world to pray.
“I don’t remember how to pray,” she added finally.
“Neither do I,” I replied. “Neither do I.”
Slowly, I began to rip my life back out from the clutches of fibromyalgia. I went to psychologists and psychiatrists. I tried “happy pills” that didn’t make me happy. I went to the gym to soothe the physical pain. And I began to write again. It took a long time to see how this was another of G-d’s miracles. I had never had time to write when I was healthy and suddenly, illness had given me all the time in the world. I still imagined myself unable to look G-d in the face. I didn’t trust Him anymore. I didn’t understand His miracles and His mind games. But something stirred every time I discovered and rediscovered Psalm 27.
“G-d is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” I started tentatively. “One thing I asked of G-d that shall I seek, that I may dwell in the House of G-d all the days of my life, to behold its sweetness and to contemplate in His sanctuary.”
And I realized that to me Judaism had always been a fulfillment of this yearning.
“When my father and mother abandon me, G-d will gather me up,” I said with a shaky voice.
And I knew that for better or worst it was because of my father and mother that I had always felt closer to G-d.
“Hope to G-d; strengthen yourself and he will give you courage, and hope to G-d.” I finished the prayer and every time, I wanted to cry. And I knew that I was no longer numb. I could feel G-d’s presence again.
Now I find myself walking now towards the bookcase where all my siddurim sit. Some are new and unopened. I trail my fingers over them. So many choices. Transliterated, English, Hebrew. Tall hard covers and light paperbacks. Sometimes, I choose a light paperback and tug it off the shelf. I sit in front of my ingenious book holder and plop the siddur over the latest copy of Entertainment Weekly.