A Lull at Elul: Off to College

Slowing down for a contemplative break during the month of Elul always sounds like a good idea. It conjures hours spent journaling about the passing year and preparing for the rigors of the high holidays.

Usually the possibility of a lull at Elul feels as far off in this month of back-to-school everything as a slow, July week at the beach.  Late August is still technically summer, but it’s manic, grab-it-if-you-can summer, summer on the way out.  As a result, my Elul work gets scrawled into notebooks along with ever-lengthening lists of things the kids need for school, ideas for new syllabi, and emails that have to be answered, or else.

But this year was different. My older daughter came home for a week at the start of Elul, between her summer job as a camp counselor and her departure for college.  Predicting a deluge of retail accompanied by scattered emotional intensity, I cleared my schedule as much as possible.

My friend Melissa texted me: “you’re in ritual time now.”  One of the least religious people I know, she called it. Just like the weeks after childbirth transform familiar routines, preparation for my daughter’s departure took us out of the everyday. The week was backlit by anticipation as well as sorrow, by our awareness of the passage we navigated.

Once Celeste was home, I found myself cancelling my remaining commitments. Instead, I sat on her bed while she sorted laundry. We spent hours cruising the aisles of Target, like explorers lost down an unfamiliar river. With her father and sister, the four of us ate family meals. Altogether, I spent more time with my daughter than I had since she started high school.

The one afternoon I found myself hunched over my laptop, sucked into a work crisis, Celeste looked at me. “What are you doing?” she asked, concern in her voice.  She’s seen me in this multitasking mode since before she could talk. I took her inquiry to mean: why are you doing this now?  And I didn’t have a good answer, so I folded the laptop shut.

When you are visibly pregnant with no toddler in tow, other parents nod at you knowingly.  “Get some sleep while you can,” they intone.  But no one tells you how babies can slow time down, the way that the repetitive actions of sleep-deprived caregiving can feel syrupy and slow, a lot like falling in love.  This daughter’s arrival midwifed me into motherhood; her upcoming departure felt similarly charged.

Time is usually a river, flowing one way. But ritual time is a pause: a lull.  Just before the waterfall of change, past, present and future converge, swirling together into a deep basin.

We all spent the week on the banks of that basin, sorting the other things washed up there. Amidst the piles of linens, books, and clothes, I glimpsed my almost-nineteen-year-old daughter, at four, at eleven, at twenty-seven.

That basin, that lull precede a reckoning. Ritual time ends and the river of time crashes ahead, plunging over that waterfall.

The four of us got into the car and drove across the state to her campus. With her roommate’s family, we crammed into the small dorm room, working together to put it into order.

After we wrenched the heavy bed frames into place, there was a pause. My husband nodded to me. We hugged our daughter and left her there, at the headwaters of her new life.

The three of us drove home the next day in a quiet car. Overnight, rising rivers had flooded the interstate, rerouting us miles out of the way. The trip took much longer coming home.

We’re still in the throes of ritual time: Celeste, as she awaits the start of classes on her new campus, and the three of us back home, as we both dread and welcome the start of a new year.

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