by Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg
The internal dialogue goes like this: I have to go to the mikveh. Do I really have to go this month? When can I go this week? Do I really have to go? I have between 3-4 on Thursday, but my meeting gets out at 2:30, which doesn’t leave me travel time, but gets me to daycare pick-up on time at the other end. This is so exhausting! I am exhausted. Maybe I can wait until next week?
And so, after having children, when it comes to finding that time for rejuvenation, potential relaxation, and, let’s be honest, ritual purity at the mikveh, it is a confounding puzzle of logistics, exhausting to the brain and the heart, and always, always a feat of time, space and magic, fueled by self-pity chocolate. The extraordinary joy, anticipation, and intensity of mikveh-going and the night following it have been replaced by detailed and lengthy rituals for morning time, bedtime, and in-between, keeping my children clean (ish) and fed (mostly), coordinating responsibilities and schedules with my husband and caregivers, and checking my clothing for spit-up. The crumbs of energy that are left go to my husband and my job.
And when it comes to myself, sometimes I can steal an hour. Finding calm in this whirlwind leads me to choose activities that require zero to little effort. A massage wins over a yoga class; early evening sleep wins over a coffee date with a friend. I admit that, in moments of weakness, I crave the option of doing as little as possible.
On a recent Sunday, after a particularly harrowing few weeks, my husband gave me the gift of “flotation therapy,” which claims to give your brain down time, reduce anxiety, improve sleep and even help you cultivate creativity. One hour of unencumbered time to treat my body and mind sounded terrific so I leaped at the opportunity.
There are some obvious parallels between floating and immersing in the mikveh. The preparation for both is careful. Something interesting, rewarding or emotionally consolidating awaits you as you emerge. And then there is the immersion, or non-immersion in the case of floating, in a pool of special water.
As I prepared for my “float,” I showered, placed salves on my cuts, put ear plugs in my ears, and entered slowly. The water flows through a body-length shallow tank that is salt-saturated and warm. Once in, my body would float on the surface the way it would in the Dead Sea. It would be peaceful and calm and enable me to relax and nurture myself. Music would pipe in slowly when my time was up. I would shower, shampoo, wash the salt out of my eyes and ears, and re-enter the world as a calmer, more integrated, creative and soulful human.
It didn’t happen that way, though. It was scary and anonymous. The tank was too dark, the water too cool. I should have been having deep thoughts, feelings and revelations and instead I wished I could see a clock so that I could count down the minutes I had left. And when I emerged, why-oh-why did I feel so empty?
But then there’s the mikveh: When I immerse my body, I immerse my heart and soul as well. I emerge with peace, with hope, and often a little sparkle of life that I find deep inside of me, especially at times when I most need to find it. At the end of a recent visit, I was told, “you’re glowing.”
“Why, thank you. I actually feel like a person again!”
They are both pools of water, this is true. So, what is the difference?
The difference is my tradition. Women in my tradition do this, and have done it for a really long time. Women who struggle, women who strive, women who love their children and partners.
The difference is my connection with God. I used to feel that I could talk directly to God, and now I have a lot of interference. When the world feels horribly unfair and I cry because life is so hard for so many, I wonder if God also takes vacations. But I always find God at the mikveh.
After the mikveh, the world looks just a bit better and God is just a bit more present. My children’s eyes curve into half-moons as they smile at each other, our little immediate family island feels safe, sacred and uninterrupted. I revel in my daughter’s giggle and my son’s clever utterance. I take a breath and feel complete. My husband and I exchange gentle, relieved looks across the table at the end of another day.
Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community. She works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 3-year-old son, Hallel, and infant daughter, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.