When a person immerses in a mikveh, s/he does so in as close a state to what s/he was like when he or she was born: no make up, no prosthetics, no jewelry, no clothes. When someone comes to Mayyim Hayyim, that person always has the option of having a guide with him or her. When there is a guide, there is a sheet.
There are many parts of the guiding experience that are important—the initial greeting, the tour, answering questions, doing a little teaching if it is called for, being a calm presence. The moment that feels crucial to me is asking the client if I may hold her sheet for her. She has prepared herself for immersion by showering or bathing and called me to let me know she is ready. She may remember that I told her the sequence of events, that I would knock on the inner preparation room door that leads into the closed, private space of the mikveh, and that I would ask her if I could hold her sheet for her. My hope is that she will remember that I told her I would hold the sheet just below my eyes in my hands with my arms outstretched so that that I would be able to see her immerse, and more importantly (to me), come up for air. Her head and the surface area of the water would be visible—I would be able to see that she has immersed completely. I don’t know that I have ever expressed to anyone in particular how important holding that sheet is. I am sure I’ve said it is to preserve modesty and privacy. I’m not sure I could have even articulated why it is so extremely important until a recent experience I had guiding.
When I held the sheet for this client I was more than protecting her privacy, which was important to her, I recognized that I was holding a safe and sacred boundary. She entrusted me to make sure she immersed completely and that I would be there in an instant if she needed assistance, but on her side of the sheet she could be completely herself, in her own body, in the water she helped make living waters by opening the bor cap and allowing the natural water to flow in, with complete confidence that she was witnessed without worry of close observation and judgment.
Since that particular immersion, I have thought a great deal about the other sheets I hold up in my life. What am I using as boundaries—to keep things separate, to keep myself apart, to hold space, to honor someone without a direct gaze. This past weekend I attended a silent meditation retreat put on by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Sometime early into the weekend, I recognized that I use humor as a sheet. It helps that I happen to be funny (because really, I am a riot), but when am I using this sheet to protect myself? Do I use it to support people and make them feel safe, make a connection, or does it make someone take a step back? And when do I put it down? It is something for me to pay attention to and to be aware that there are other things I use as sheets—things I use to keep myself separate and protected whether or not I need or even ought to be separate, and when I am most probably very safe and not needing protection.
Often when I use the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim, I do not have a guide and I do not bring my own witness. I think the next time I immerse I may take the opportunity to have a guide and to experience what it is like to be on the other side of the sheet for a change.
Lisa Port White gives massage and Reiki treatments to people in hospice. She is an active volunteer at Congregation Dorshei Tzedek and at Mayyim Hayyim as a mikveh guide. To learn more about her, visit her blog at www.lisaportwhite.com.