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On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
[/pullquote]The high holiday month of Elul arrives just as summer is giving way to fall.  A psychedelic chartreuse rimes the greenery, making it impossible to ignore the inevitable: summer will end, giving way to fall and then winter. Even the happiest moments of this phase of the Jewish year contain a note of doom. We celebrate the renewal of life, aware of the ubiquitous shadow of loss and of death.
On the one hand, the high holidays are as sweet as the pomegranate salad that my friend Paloma made for erev Rosh Hashona. It was sparkly and delicious, like the year we all hoped to have. But the progression from Rosh Hashona through the Days of Awe to Yom Kippur is also an anxious one, charged with hope and fear.
The Days of Awe take place in the space between possibility and fate.  That second word seems medieval, so distant from the robust strivings of everyday secular life. But the space between possibility and fate can mean the difference between sheltering on dry land or suffocating at the bottom of a leaky boat; between surviving to see the storm pass over or perishing in the hurricane; between welcoming your children home for dinner or having them gunned down in the streets.
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Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?

[/pullquote]This year, my family came home from Rosh Hashanah services to find that our beloved cat, Swish, had disappeared.  We thought she might have slipped out through a not-quite-shut screen door. All evening, we waited for her to return. Ginger, my younger daughter, went to bed fretting about the cat. Feeling somewhat dishonest, I reassured her that the cat would return. I fell asleep, straining to sort a meow out of the ambient night noises on our tree-lined street.
The next morning, no Swish. More to reassure Ginger than because I thought it would do any good, I made up some “Lost Cat” flyers.   As if praying the stations of some feline cross, I went up and down the blocks of my neighborhood in a light rain, stopping at each telephone pole to tape up the flyers. I described the cat to the city workers pruning trees and asked them to keep an eye out for her. I pressed my cell phone number on complete strangers, in case they saw her. I posted notices to Craig’s List, to our block email list, and to Facebook.
Trying to find the cat required public performances of grief: a kind of abasement, a kind of prayer.  I did all these things, hoping for some kind of divine or neighborly intervention to bring Swish home. But each act of asking for help amplified my sense of household crisis and impending loss, because there was little we could actually do to bring her back.
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Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?

[/pullquote]When that night and the next day showed no sign of Swish, we all became distraught. Ginger rehearsed ways she might have driven Swish away. Celeste, her older sister, ticked off a list of things we could be doing, but weren’t, to find the cat.  Although he professes little love for household pets, my husband, Joe, scoured the neighborhood, calling for Swish.
After everyone else in the household was asleep that night, I followed anonymous advice I had received from someone on Craig’s List and placed her litter box and a blanket from our bed on the front porch. I think the idea was that the cat would smell her way home. I stayed out there a while, sitting on the stoop and intermittently calling for her, staring out into the night.
All of this took place during the Days of Awe, words from the Unetaneh Tokef filtering through my mind:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?

Cats disappear sometimes. A young cat like Swish can get lost well before their time:  mistaken for a stray and adopted by some well-meaning soul; hit by a car; hunted by the foxes that live in a nearby park. I have no idea how to deflect the evil of such a decree.
I don’t usually pray; not in the sense of petitioning for mercy. My Days of Awe practice usually focuses on mending the social fabric, interpersonally and politically.  I try to redirect my efforts and intentions, I prepare to live better. I focus on working for change: I do not think about fate.
But this year, Swish’ disappearance forced me to inhabit the Days of Awe differently. All our efforts to bring Swish home constituted requests for intercession: from neighbors and/or strangers and/or the divine.  This made me feel powerless. I could not control the fate of one small fluffy cat: I could not protect my daughters from the pain her loss would bring.

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Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?

[/pullquote]The third morning of Swish’s absence I woke up at 6 am and, on the advice of a Facebook friend,  went out to the porch and rattled the cat food bag.  First, I heard the meow I had been listening for during the past three days. Then Swish came, darting like deliverance, across three adjacent porches, landing right in front of me.  I picked her up and brought her inside.  That afternoon Joe adjusted our screen door so that it now shuts tight each time.
Things might have turned out differently. The difference between wandering and finding refuge and safety is tiny and pivotal. One speeding car could have made the difference between safe return and weeks of futile petitioning.
Swish’ disappearance marked our Days of Awe: our household became aware that things could really go either way for us. A few days after her return, I got a call: someone had seen a cat fitting Swish’ description in our local park.  I checked to make sure: Swish was sleeping on a kitchen chair. Someone else’s cat had gone missing.
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Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?

[/pullquote]In this suffering world, the fate of one small fluffy cat means little, except to the four of us. She could have come back to us, or not. So many big structures make human life chances unfair: we work against white supremacy, empire, and patriarchy. But other factors were at work in Swish’ disappearance and her return.
The Days of Awe breathe a cold breath into the still-hale late summer days.  We focus on what we can do, on tikkun olam: mending the world, balancing the work with the knowledge of how little we actually control.