In the middle of my house, hanging between my living and dining rooms, is a blue lycra therapy swing. When the world overwhelms me, when my body is jittery, when my eyes ache with the slightest light and my ears from the slightest sound, I fold my body into this swing. It curls up and around me, like a hug from all sides. I close my eyes. I wrap my arms tightly around my chest. I listen to soothing brown noise in my earbuds.
I am held in the bosom of the Narrow Place.
This year, I am struck by an obvious fact, so easily forgotten once we are swept up in the narrative of the Exodus. Biblical Egypt—Mitzrayim in Hebrew, which our tradition understands as derived from the word meitzar, the Narrow Place—is not at first a place of oppression. When the land of Canaan is overwhelmed with suffering in the famine, Jacob’s family flees to Egypt for safety. This is where we meet them at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot.
The Narrow Place is first a place of refuge.
As a late-diagnosed Autistic mother of an Autistic child, I know about the Narrow Place as refuge. Autistic people tend to have senses that are either extra sensitive or extra insensitive—and we need sensory stimulation that balances it all out. Many of us with insensitive proprioception (the sense of where our bodies are in space) crave intense pressure on our bodies. Tight hugs. Therapy swings. Vibration. Hand holding. Squeeze me narrow. Help me feel safe.
The Narrow Place as refuge is not only found in tight physical spaces and is not only for Autistics. In her bestselling book, “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times,” Katherine May coins a term that has helped millions of readers: “Wintering…is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” She explains, “We must stop believing that these times in our lives are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose of them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite the winter in. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”
When my child went into deep Autistic burnout last spring and stopped being able to leave the house, he and I went into our own wintering—a Narrow Place defined not by a therapy swing (though we spent lots of time in there) but by the walls of our home, and by the undetermined length of time his burnout would last. I knew in my bones that we needed to follow his lead and let him rest—there was no other option if we wanted his exhausted nervous system to heal. We were choosing how to winter.
This was the Narrow Place as refuge.
In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, the sons of Israel who go to Egypt to escape the famine are called by name. Rabbi Batya Ellinoy links this naming to the beloved verses from Psalms: “[God is] healer of the broken hearted, and binder of their wounds. God counts the number of the stars and calls each by name (shemot)” (Psalms 147:3-4).
Like our named ancestors, we retreat to the Narrow Place to heal, to be bound tightly, as the Psalmist suggests, by God’s love. In this place—in our wintering, in our burnout, in our deepest hunger and heartbreak—Divine love calls us by name, knows us intimately, remembers us in our fullness even when we feel ourselves hollowed by pain.
It can be hard to trust that we are remembered and held in the Narrow Place, because sometimes being there feels brutal and endless. But the crucial thing to remember is that the Narrow Place as refuge is not the same as our suffering. It is an intentional container in which we might bear our suffering. We can build a nest there—lined with friends and family, or ample time alone, or time with our passions, or cozy socks and favorite tea. We can hold that space for our loved ones, as well.
In the world that you and I live in, it’s very hard to stay in the Narrow Place for as long as we need to. “Come on!” society provokes us, poking our soft, curled bodies with a stick. “You need to keep up your status! Your child will fall behind! You will disappoint your friends and coworkers! You will lose your good reputation!”
I know these voices well. I imagine you do, too.
One of the transformative gifts the Autistic community offers society is the normalization of rest and retreat as nonnegotiable. Many people cannot afford the rest and retreat they need—or may require support from safety networks to be able to access it. But we are all worthy of it. And as our ancestors fleeing famine remind us—and as anyone who has fallen into burnout or cared for someone in burnout can attest—crawling into the Narrow Place and resisting the pokes to leave too soon can quite literally be a matter of life and death.
But there is another kind of pressure to leave the Narrow Place that we should listen to, and this one comes from within. The still, small voice whispering that it’s time to leave the squeeze of a relationship that is no longer working. The craving of the muscles to climb out of the therapy swing and stretch.
There came a time in my child’s burnout when he cried out in anguish, “Mama, I miss the sun, but I can’t go outside!” My heart broke. Like the Israelites crying out to God (Exodus 2:23), my son’s Narrow Place of refuge had become oppressive and he was truly ready to leave it. Yet despite the radical parenting and lifestyle changes we had made, his anxiety was still too high to make the journey. So, he cried out. And like God heard the Israelites, my husband and I heard his cry. We called his doctor. We upped his anxiety medication. Over the next few weeks, his nervous system relaxed the extra bit it needed to.
One day, like our ancestors striding to freedom through the walls of the sea, my child walked out the front door, his face lifted toward the slanting midwinter sun.
The Narrow Place of refuge had served its holy purpose for now. It was time to be reborn.
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