I strip off my clothes, step into the shower, scrub my skin raw. Nothing can sit on the surface of my body as I walk towards the mikveh – not jewellery, not contact lenses, not nail polish. I must be as clean as the day I was born, allowing nothing to create a barrier between me and the water.
This is the first of 12 immersions I planned in that new year – after Rosh Hashanah 2019, 5781 on the Jewish calendar. Before the world was shuttered, before we understood that the rules had changed and we no longer could take contact of any sort for granted. I have planned each immersion to be dedicated to grieving and shedding a different loss.
I am wandering, spiritually, making the decision to leave a beloved synagogue community in search of a different form of connection. I soon realise that it is water that is calling me. When I am near water – whether walking at the beach, oaring in a kayak on a silver lake, or even simply immersing myself in a shower – the molecules in my body rearrange themselves. The electromagnetic force of the earth pulls me in and changes my body and my mind, reshaping my ability to think and feel more clearly.
So I decide to make a project of immersion. As I continue to grieve the death of my husband, three years earlier, I am always aware of the other losses that I had racked up. People. Things. Intangibles, including the end of the 25-year parenting enterprise. I decide to visit the mikveh in my community – one that is dedicated to supporting the ritual life and personal transitions of anyone who wants to immerse – and create a space in which I could both mourn and shed my losses, one at a time.
I make my way down the seven tiled steps, one at a time, into the moving and living waters of the mikveh. I am all alone, with only my thoughts to guide me into the three immersions. The first, in which to remember the past – pain and joy. The second dedicated to this day, this moment, in this water. And the third, the what’s to come, as I peer out to the future. The water surrounds me and pulls me in.
Mikveh is a somatic experience, bringing together the purity of our body with the beauty of our soul. My breasts and belly rise in the water – that same round belly that housed my babies, those same breasts that nourished my children, usually scrunched tightly under the miracle fabric of skin-crushing bathing suits — but at mikveh, they float freely. I feel light and lithe.
Of course, no loss ever leaves us. We learn to move forward, into, not swim away from grief. But the concept of cleansing one’s body … and one’s soul … allows for the sloughing of an outer skin, the one I scrub away even before entering the mikveh. I emerge with a clearer mind, a quieter heart, and a body that can move more freely through the world.
I had visited mikveh once before, when I was a bride. In the fall of 2019 I am now a widow. Both times I emerged feeling indelibly cleansed. Sacred. In 2019, I imagine these two immersions to be spiritual bookends of my life.
But life has a way of upending one’s assumptions.
Four years later, on a warm Friday morning in early July, I pack my bag and return to the mikveh, preparing for a new immersion. Later in the weekend I will pledge myself to my new love. In front of 60 of our most cherished people, together we will mark our 60th birthdays and read our vows of commitment to each other, held in the spiritual container we will create by surrounding ourselves with our community of kindred spirits.
This morning at the mikveh, hours before I am swept away by closest friends for a day of pampering and lunch and preparation, I once again scrub myself raw. I am less conscious of my nakedness than I was four years earlier, more comfortable in my rounded, scarred body, which is now beloved by someone who is tender with every inch and caresses my curves and edges with unabashed passion. The mikveh is quiet, as it is early morning and aside from the few congregants davening morning prayers in the sanctuary above, there is no one in the building. I am alone with the quiet lights and blue tiles under which the living waters beckon me.
It hadn’t occurred to me to come to mikveh. I was not getting remarried, this was not a wedding I was preparing for. But several weeks earlier, at the funeral of a beloved friend who died too soon, I was struck by the number seven. Seven — completeness and wholeness in Jewish numerical interpretations. And as I sat at my friend’s funeral, almost seven years to the day from my husband’s, surrounded by the same tableau of casket and mourners as I had seven years earlier, I realised that I had completed a cycle of grief.
As well, my partner and I are entering our seventh year of being together, being each other’s person, helping the other wade through the shoals of the loss of the lives we both thought we would be living. We would be marking our lives together ceremonially, and I wanted a marker to the ending of my own cycle.
I begin my now-familiar walk down the seven steps to the mikveh. Seven. Completion, wholeness. I stop at each, both to prevent slipping but also to mark each year of mourning. I stand with my feet planted on the tiled floor, my body quickly remembering how to release itself to float freely in the moving waters. I sing the shehechyanu, the prayer of celebration. Then I murmur an intention for a joyous life transition, and only then do I intone the prayer of immersion before each of the three times I lower my entire body until I am fully submerged, my short hair bobbing under the surface.
I rise up after the third immersion, head thrown back, like a mermaid bursting out of the ocean, expecting perhaps a shimmer of holiness to encase me. I walk back up the steps and rinse myself off, lighter and more prepared for the coming days and to welcome the remarkable moments.
The year I was going to connect my mikveh visits to my mourning process I was planning to use the calendar of the moon to guide my timing. This time, two nights later, as my partner and I are surrounded by love beyond measure, we look up into the mountains beyond our gathering and see the full moon rising above us.
Early in our relationship my partner gave me a journal to be a sacred space to hold my words. Embossed on its cover are lines from the poet Omar Khayyam: “Be happy in this moment. This moment is your life.” Joy, sadness, mourning and celebration all cascade through the waters of mikveh as it circles my body, trying to return to the centre. My life.