Makeshift Sanctuary by Thea Hillman

If coming of age means coming to the age when adults begin to fail, when you begin to see what being adult really is, and when the fallible adult in you begins to appear, 13 was when I came of age.

At 13, what had been stable became unstable: After living in the same house for the first 12 years of my life, we would live in three houses over the next five years. We left the childhood home in Oakland that I loved with all my heart, and moved to Piedmont, that place my dad had said was full of snobs and swore we’d never live there.

Thirteen was the year I made many conscious and unconscious commitments: to change the world, to be different, to be somewhat fabulous, somewhat infamous and somewhat unpopular my whole life. Thirteen was the year of my period. And 13 was the year of my Bat Mitzvah, which, for me, meant continuing to take myself and everything else way too seriously.

My Torah portion, pekudei, is the account—both meanings, counting and remembering—of building the tabernacle, the mishkan, a mobile sanctuary for Jews wandering in the desert. Moses had invited the Israelites to listen to their heart and contribute their skills and precious riches to the mishkan… piece of silver, copper, gold, acacia wood, every single shekel, the number of people who donated them, the weight of them, the spices, lapis lazuli, fine linens, olive oil…everything down to the yarns and the color of the curtains is painstakingly detailed.

At 13, the only thing I understood about my Torah portion is that it was about mitzvahs, something about doing good deeds.

As part of my Bat Mitzvah mitzvah, though probably really to have something to actually say in the speech that comes after the Torah portion, I was matched with a pen pal, a refusnik, a girl my age in Russia, someone Jewish, someone whose family had tried to leave Russia but couldn’t because they were Jewish. Who couldn’t even practice Judaism. Her name was Sofia. I think. What I do remember most clearly is that memorizing my Torah portion, learning to chant and memorize an entire page of Hebrew, a foreign language, was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It truly seemed an impossible task. I had a little black recorder, and a tape with someone chanting my Torah portion, and I would wind it back and forth, word by word. I chipped away at it, for months. Actually conquering it, completing it when I did, felt like a huge accomplishment.

I don’t think I ever wrote to Sofia again after my Bat Mitzvah, something she couldn’t have, in a place she couldn’t leave. I remember feeling guilty, really guilty…thinking of her every several months, a reminder of my privilege and the luxury of being too busy to write her. This feeling guilty was a leaving of the garden, a kind of covenant, and the beginning of a growing list of things to be responsible to and for, things dependent on me and my right or wrong action.

That 13th summer on the way to pick me and my brother up at camp my Dad would fall asleep at the wheel with my mom in the passenger seat, and crash into a boat and trailer parked on the side of the road. My little brother and I waited at camp for hours while all the other kids got picked up. Finally, a call came from a hospital a few towns away and we learned that my Dad was fine and my Mom had broken her leg. At the hospital, someone was brought out in a wheelchair. I expected to see my Mom, but it was my Dad. And when he saw us he started to cry.  That’s when I knew it was worse than they’d said and that suddenly I was in charge. I didn’t cry. My mom was wheeled past us in a gurney, then rushed ahead of us in an ambulance. My mom’s multiple injuries, more than a broken leg, landed her in the hospital for a couple of months for a series of surgeries. I slept with my dad those first days after the accident, helping him turn over in bed due to broken ribs. When the hospital bed came home with my mom, she couldn’t handle the stairs in our big house, and we would move to a new house. This was the beginning of nothing being quite right any more, nothing ever being right between my parents again, and nothing ever feeling like home again.

It’s been 31 years since my Bat Mitzvah. The big houses in Piedmont are history, as is the money they were bought with. My family is scattered in disconnected pieces throughout the world. The Soviet Union dissolved six years after my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve wondered, what did Sofia decide to do that she hadn’t been able to do before? Did she ever have a Bat Mitzvah, where is she now, and does she ever think of me?

Thirty-one years later I would tell myself: don’t feel bad about not writing back, calling back, to them for them, but think instead about how much that friend means to you and what it’ll mean if you lose them. I would tell myself beware of that covenant you made, one that would be much subtler than the Jewish guilt that’s been popularized, but a cocktail of white guilt mixed with middle class guilt with a splash of activist guilt. I would sit myself down and say this: someday, all that will be left of the tabernacle of your Torah portion is a few phrases. Your speech will be long forgotten, by you and everyone else who attended your Bat Mitzvah. All that’s left is the accounting of it, and a legacy of trying to build big, fancy things by yourself. And sometimes getting confused about doing God’s work.

I would say: Being an adult is not so glamorous as you imagine and are rushing so fast toward. Being an adult is a series of challenges that you handle with grace or not. A series of choices you make or don’t make, but that happen either way. A series of decisive moments that don’t always make sense when they’re happening, and don’t necessarily make sense 31 years later, but shed light on how you handle challenges and why you make certain choices.

At 13, I had been the center of the universe, the cause of everything, the purpose for everything. Then, the world got bigger, and I got smaller. I used to feel responsible, responsible to and responsible for everything. I was in charge, for better or worse. I know now that it’s for worse and that I’m not in charge. I’m not sure who is, but I know it’s not my parents, and as a parent, I know it’s not me. I’m not trying to build the tabernacle by myself anymore. I now know that when I think I know what’s best for others, when the weight of the world spurs me to action, I’m usually taking on something that’s perhaps too heavy and perhaps not mine.

Now I know that human monuments, riches, even those created with the deepest devotion, in time wash away, turned to dust from water, war, or the changing winds. And while I lost my childhood, as we all do, the things I’ve gained were these beautiful lessons, about my gifts and humility and the fragility of human life and the joy of being human. These are my fineries, my finest moments. Because life is a makeshift sanctuary in the wilderness, created one blessed moment at a time, growing more beautiful and holy and richer every day.

Thea Hillman, poet, author of "Intersex (for Lack of a Better Word.)" and "Depending on the Light," and a San Francisco poetry slam champion who has performed her work across the country.