For university students or professors, like my husband, the end of term is coming. Some universities call this winter term, others say spring term. Even though I haven’t been in school for a long while, I still remember the feeling at the end. Many of my classmates were elated after they sat their last exam. They’d yell loudly after they left the exam hall, or go drinking or do something celebratory and crazy. I often had an entirely different experience.
Most of my coursework, in the humanities and social sciences, required writing papers instead. During the study week and the exam period that followed, I’d line up the due dates, create a calendar and plow through. Each paper would require its set of books, carefully piled up, with scraps of paper as bookmarks or long lists of online references. I’d check the professor’s requirements – five pages? 12? 20? – and sometimes crank out a paper every day or two.
In that era, the professors liked hard copies, so I’d print out my work, staple it, and trudge across campus, leaving it in a professor’s mailbox. Then, I’d walk home and, sometimes, I’d take a break from writing. Other times, I’d just start the next paper. When the last research paper was written and submitted, that was it. No fanfare. No yelling or parties or even shared experience with classmates. In some cases, by the time I finished writing, the dormitories would be emptying out. I’d feel hollow and exhausted, but, even while I was alone, I was triumphant. It was all finished. I could go home.
Real life isn’t a lot like the end of a semester. True, holidays end (buh-bye, Passover!! See ya next year!) and big work projects get turned in, but, many times, there’s no big completion marker, no hurrah. It’s a lot more like turning in those term papers. It’s a lot less like the group partying after exams.
Our triumphs and mile markers during the pandemic have been quieter, overall, for me – a lot like that feeling of turning in my research papers by myself. I cheer every time someone shows off their COVID vaccination information on social media. I’m in awe of what many have accomplished during this independent time in terms of learning new skills (sourdough, pottery, whatever) or in their career trajectory; again, mostly seen via social media. It’s sometimes hard to “see” oneself the same way, though, particularly when vaccinations are going so slowly.
Whlie I know, objectively, that many of us are accomplishing a ton, it’s also equally valid to do a reasonable job just staying afloat during such a crisis. Getting meals on the table, kids educated and – not to be forgotten – working are big accomplishments right now. As some are struggling with mental health, food or housing insecurity, it can be important to recognize how many of us are doing OK, and could potentially help someone else.
The Jewish calendar has really steered our household during this stay-home period. For instance, right now, we’re counting the Omer at home, for the first time ever. My kids did it in preschool, and I’ve been vaguely aware of it some years, but I certainly wasn’t raised with doing this at home.
What’s the Omer? It’s the verbal counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot. While we no longer bring a grain offering to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot, we still measure this stretch between the holidays. The kabbalistic mystics added a level of meditative imagery, too, a way of preparing ourselves to mark the gift of the Torah to the Jewish people on Shavuot.
One of my twins is keen to cross days off the calendar. He and I are counting the Omer together. To remember, I’ve been writing the right number on a chalkboard and he and I turn to each other at some point and announce, “It’s the Xth day of the Omer!” Then we say, for instance, “NINE, NINE, NINE!” and laugh. But, in all seriousness, for us, it has become a way of keeping track of time. It’s an accomplishment, if not a divine mystical meditation.
I’m very much looking forward to being vaccinated – and I’m hoping to say the Shehecheyanu blessing (being grateful for having reached this moment and season). I can’t wait to feel, with the vaccination, that I’ve done all I can to cherish life, according to Jewish tradition, and be healthy for my family.
On the Jewish calendar, we’re looking forward to having a family barbeque on Lag b’Omer. Both 9-year-olds here are excited about their hot dogs and maybe getting to eat them outside.
It still feels like an absolutely uphill trudge in the snow, though. This is literal – we’re also in the midst of a big April snowstorm in Winnipeg. The plows are working outside my home as I write this. However, using this ancient system to count the days, or the Omer, both connects us to our past and helps us make incremental gains towards whatever is to come in our hopefully brighter, post-pandemic future.
Every year, we receive the Torah on Shavuot, and it’s something to celebrate, a milestone. Each moment, no matter how mundane, is something for which to feel grateful.
Many say that, when the pandemic is over, there will be a roaring ’20s feel, that people will party wildly in the streets. I suspect it’s going to be a lot more like the trickling sensation of writing and turning in one paper at a time, until I’d met all my undergraduate course load deadlines. Even so, I’m counting the days until I can feel relieved at the end, and celebrate with family, at home. Since no one knows when that end will be scheduled on any calendar, I’ll just keep counting the Omer, instead.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.