A Jewish law requires farmers to keep Shemitah, to let their fields lie fallow for a full year, once every seven years. It is written in the Torah, the holy book. During the Shemitah year, the farmer opens the orchard gate to everyone. This wild fruit is free for the picking.
Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit. But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for G‑d . . .
The time of Shemitah is a period for the land to rest and for the farmers to devote to their spiritual life. Of course, farmers with animals still need to care for them, but the intent is for the farmers to take a break from physical labor, and dedicate themselves to inner work.
Taking a little time to be in quiet within the day or the week is keeping Shemitah on a small scale, similar to observing Sabbath or attending church. I like to rise early in the dark hours before the trafficking of the world begins. The noises I hear are the quiet hooting of distant owls and our parrots cooing before I slip the night blankets off their cages. It’s like going to the monastery for a few days, which I did last weekend for the Wild Grasses Sesshin. A Sesshin in Zen Buddhism is a silent retreat when participants follow a strict schedule of long hours of meditation, ritualized sharing of meals, and work practice. Silence, both inner and outer, is at the heart of the retreat. We walk with heads down, eyes lowered, making no eye contact, trying to keep our attention within our own minds and not think about what is happening around us.
This retreat was different than the monthly Sesshin at Zen Mountain Monastery, because it was all women. The layout of the meditation hall, usually fastidious rows of square meditation cushions in formal lines, was, for this retreat, softened by forming two concentric circles. We were a community of women. We shared our pain, our joy, and our equanimity, all mysteriously in and through the silence. We ate passing large bowls of food from one to the other and ladling it out into our bowls. The hot water came at the end to clean the bowls, and we sipped this offering and were grateful for the delicious food to sustain our practice, prepared by the men at the monastery who supported this time when the women could be together.
We noticed in taking time out from the company of men a deeper relaxation into the space of our own bodies. When I returned home and was telling my partner, Blase, and our friend, Ron, about the retreat, they both said, “That’s how men feel, too, when they gather without women.” Blase and Ron have been part of the men’s workshop world, leading programs such as Men’s Wisdom Council and Mythic Warrior for many years. It’s good for the sexes to separate and then come back together, carrying what we have learned about ourselves.
Susan Sontag said in the 80’s in response to the frenzy of large-scale art, “There is too much art making and not enough listening.” I know I need more of this deep listening, but it can be challenging to find time in a busy day to pause and be grateful, and to listen with my whole body. Poets know this kind of deep listening. I love the description of the poet Rilke, a guest in the Duino castle near Trieste, hearing the verses that later became the Duino Elegies, ten mystical and haunting poems of despair, loneliness, and ecstasy.
Farmers used to write during the winter months, the resting time. Today, growing seasons are extended with heated green houses and there’s little break between planting garlic in late fall, digging up root crops, and starting seeds and setting out early greens. It's hard to find that quiet time.
I’ve read that 21st century farmers in Israel find that keeping Shemitah is challenging, and they have ways to get around it. The reality of our time is different from 2500 years ago, but the intention remains a good one. It is necessary to push that pause button, to write poetry, to take time to taste the fruit. Especially in times of darkness, it’s good to gather with friends and communities, listen deeply, and share the fruits we discover.
Especially as the days grow darker; remember there’s even more work to do. We must get involved with issues we care about, support women and children everywhere, and especially protect the earth — she’s going to need our help more than ever.
. . . because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us . . .
from Rilke’s Ninth Elegy, tr. Stephen Mitchell