These Cloudy Days of Awe: Hin’ni and Nina Simone

It’s been ages since I have just put on headphones and listened to music. I sing so much at school and while preparing for classes, services, and the High Holy Days that the last thing on my mind is music for recreation. I sit at the piano and hammer away my frustrations, I sit and learn new pieces on my guitar, but I never listen. I have closed off my ears in exhausted frustration.

I do chores to the soundtrack of NPR. I opt for TV when I need noise at home that doesn’t require anything of me. I don’t know how long I’ve been this exhausted, but it has become a fact of life. When I finally get to relax, my fuel tank is empty and I simply do not have the capacity to enjoy music outside of work and school.

Today, however, I broke out my headphones. On my way to Penn Station to catch a train to my pulpit in Schenectady it dawned on me that it has been so long since I have listened to music that I didn’t know where to start. This time last year I made a playlist for the Days of Awe, the days of this season during which we look inward to take spiritual inventory of our year. Who were we, what did we do, whom did we love? Whom have we harmed?

The first song had me nearly in tears. It is a particularly heavy song, weighed down by memories of my days as a singer-songwriter. I sang it to open each set. I played and sang my heart out in bars and listening rooms hoping to find some kind of connection, but I mostly came up empty in terms of spiritual satisfaction. I felt a kind of numbness in my performance high that was not only confusing, but totally uninspiring. Today as the Days of Awe playlist continued, I remembered why I added each song to this list last year. I began looking at the time between then and now. How have these songs changed? How have I changed? How has my relationship with music changed?

I am going to stand before a congregation I love and pray with them during these Days of Awe. I am going to literally and metaphorically beseech G-d for guidance through the process of forgiving myself and others. I will stand on the bimah and pray through music for myself and on behalf of the congregation. This year, however, I am responsible for delivering a piece of liturgy that has both inspired me and terrified me.

Nina Simone’s famous cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on next. Her fervent prayer that the good within her outlast the bad struck me. I have spent days, weeks, and months feeling the pressure of the upcoming holidays and I have mostly felt crushed beneath their weight. I have struggled to present a true version of myself to the world while hiding my feelings of inadequacy.

Baby, sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that’s hard to hide
And sometimes it seems that
All I have to do is worry
And then you’re bound to see my other side

I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I could not believe it. I’m on my way to do something that scares me to death and here is a song I have sung for years and finally understood. This feeling exists all around me, and I have never listened.

“Hin’ni,” I will chant.

Here I am standing before this congregation asking You, G-d, to look past my shortcomings and accept the words in this room. If I should fall short, I ask humbly that you do not fault them on my behalf. Please give me the strength to do this to the best of my ability… I don’t know what else to do.

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I used to pray this every time I walked onto a stage. Now, finally, I pray this in a place where I belong, no longer performing, and no longer searching for fulfillment. Truly, hin’ni.

My Days of Awe were cloudy days in which I felt lost. I’m still a bundle of nerves and self-doubt, but I can say for sure that my heart and soul are in the right place. As we go into these magnificent, terrifying, and challenging days, we will find our own ways to stand and say Hin’ni. I offer my spiritual disclaimer in no uncertain terms: I am scared. I am still learning and I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing. But I am also a soul whose intentions are good, and all I can do is hope that my work and my intentions are enough for this season.

And when it’s all done, I promise to listen to music again.

Blessed are you, Eternal Source of the Universe, who hears our prayers.

Shanah tovah.