Sara Davidson is the New York Times best-selling author of Loose Change, Leap! And Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion. A few years ago, she was surprised by a call from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a colorful and brilliant rabbi of 89 (and founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement) asking her to talk with him about something he called The December Project. “When you can feel in your cells that you’re coming to the end of your tour of duty,” he said, “what is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery?” She jumped at the chance to spend time with him, and they met every Friday for two years to explore the mystery of what happens at the end of life—and beyond. The resulting book—December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery—is a wonderful read full of humor, insights, and strategies for cultivating fearlessness and joy—at any age. Interspersed with their talks are sketches from Reb Zalman’s life—barely escaping the Nazis in Vienna, becoming a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, seeking wisdom from outside his own community, taking L.S.D. with Timothy Leary, becoming friends with Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama—all in an effort to “take the blinders off Judaism,” and encourage people to have a direct experience of God.
I spoke to Davidson recently about how The December Project changed her life.
MM: How did you come to write this amazing book with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi?
SD: Well, we both live in Boulder, Colorado, though I first met him 30 years ago. In 2009, I went to a reading Reb Zalman was giving for a new book. Afterward, I went up to him and said, “I know you’re working on your archive project at the University of Colorado. If there’s anything I can do to support you, let me know.” I figured I’d never hear from him. The next morning I get a call and he said, “I really want to talk with you about what I’m calling The December Project. It’s about what happens when a person is coming to the end of his tour of duty. What is the spiritual work of that time and how do you prepare for the mystery?”
We began meeting once a week and it went on for almost two years. This is the story of what happened to both of us during that two-year time, how we changed and what we discovered.
MM: What were your primary insights about death and living during those conversations?
SD: Well, I had always been a seeker. I always was interested in asking the big questions. I had a very skeptical mind that would quickly tear apart almost anything that was given to me as a belief about what happens when we die. I had this fear that it would all end in nothing—that life ends in nothing—which is terribly upsetting because I just turned 70. What was it all about anyway if the end is just a complete annihilation?
Reb Zalman had a very different feeling. He was convinced that something continues and, although his view of the afterlife changed quite a bit during the time we were together, he never wavered in his conviction that something continues after the death of the body. He didn’t share my fear because he had this conviction, this knowing, that something continues. In one of our first sessions he said to me, “I don’t want to convince you of anything. What I want is to loosen your mind.” And he did. My mind did loosen.
MM: Did the book change Reb Zalman's life as well?
SD: We both had a trajectory during the two-year period. Reb Zalman had to face a steep decline in his health. There was one point at which he told me that he was spending all his time trying to get well and stay well. He said, “How do I face this with some kind of spiritual armament? How do I face the decline of the body in pain?” He knew that he needed to dissociate from the body to really understand that it was his body that was going through this, not him. That was his big challenge. There were many positive, wonderful things that came for him during this time, as he approached the end of the symphony.
My curve was a bit different. During the time we spent together, it seemed like I had to face death at every corner. My mother died, her partner died, my sisters-in-law both died. One of my closest friends died (and it was the first time I’d lost a close friend). Then I went to Afghanistan on a peace mission. The U.S. State Department had issued a warning that it was unsafe for Americans to travel there. I decided that I was being called to go, and needed to go, but I had to prepare for the fact that I might not come back. Or I might come back so compromised that I couldn’t take care of myself. I had to go through putting my affairs in order, writing letters to my children, and accepting the fact that this was a trip that might change my life forever.
Well, we did come back but it was a close call. Within a week after our group left the guesthouse where we were staying, it was hit by a terrorist attack—a suicide bomb—and almost everyone perished.
Death was in my face, my nose, my nostrils. It was everywhere around me. And here I was meeting with Reb Zalman every Friday to talk about mortality! Then I had a number of experiences that came to a climax when I became ill and visited an energy healer for treatment. I was lying on his table and all of a sudden I heard (as one sometimes hears things that are not spoken), It’s all right to die. When it happens, it won’t be terrible. It will be okay. The experience was so strong that it has totally changed the way I feel about growing older and mortality. I don’t say I welcome it. I love life, but I no longer feel it’s the fearsome tragedy that I did when we started our project.
MM: Where do you think that voice came from?
SD: It’s a mystery. I often get guidance and the big question is, is it authentic guidance or is it just part of your mind? I asked Reb Zalman and we talked about it at length. He said, “There’s no litmus test to tell you which it is.” When such guidance strikes him a certain way and he feels like he can work with it, that gives him the sense that it’s the real juice. I don’t know where this message came from but there was this unclenching and relaxation that happened.
In the book, Reb Zalman talks a great deal about ‘the loosening of ties’. He says it’s as if your soul and body are tied together by these tiny threads and, as you get closer to the end of your term on earth, the threads begin to loosen until you can really let go of them and you’re no longer attached to the body and the earth.
Now I can feel the ties loosening. I have this to draw on: that the end is not terrible; that it’s okay. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it came to me as a result of working with Reb Zalman on The December Project.
MM: Was Reb Zalman saying that the ties loosen themselves or that we do practice to loosen them?
SD: He meant that the ties begin to loosen by themselves. One of the primary practices of The December Project is letting go. The ultimate release would be the letting go of all those ties. But the practice of letting go is something we should do all our lives. Every wisdom tradition tells you that the more you can let go and accept what is, the happier you will be. It’s a day-by-day practice. You don’t just let go once and you’re done. You start by letting go of easy things. Somebody cancels a lunch you’d been looking forward to and can you let go of your attachment to meeting for lunch and your disappointment that it isn’t happening; to just accept it and move on. If you can’t do this, ask yourself what stands between you and acceptance? We can all do this with things large and small every day and it will lead to a more joyful and peaceful and grateful life.
MM: As much as mortality, this is a book about how to live.
SD: Absolutely. There’s a song Reb Zalman sings called “Treasure of Our Days.” What can you savor in every moment no matter where you are or what’s happening to you? Gratitude is a big part of living well.
MM: I know that you’re a new grandmother. How does the birth of a grandchild one’s feelings about death?
SD: I had not been prepared for what would happen when my first grandson was born. I knew I was going to love him because I loved babies and I loved my kids and I loved children. But it was deeper than that. When I held this baby against my chest as he slept, it was one of those moments where you get to just be. Nothing else exists. You’re there in that moment holding an eight-day-old baby who is your connection to the future. And through you, he’s connected to the past. That’s when I realized that he was this tiny new light coming into the world and I’m a 70-year-old woman whose light is gradually fading. And here we are…connected. It was so deep and so beyond what I could ever express in words. I just couldn’t get enough of holding this little baby.
MM: There’s also a lot of humor in The December Project.
SD: I think laughter is one of the greatest miracles and medicines we have. Any time you can laugh and find the humor in a situation, it’s going to release you. As I said, Reb Zalman and I both went through our ups and downs during these two years but no matter what state we were on any particular day, by the end of the hour we were both laughing. There was always laughter. Reb Zalman is very funny and I love to see the absurdity in things. Humor is a major part of [wisdom]. He also loves to sing and he would burst into song at the slightest provocation. Once, when I told him that I felt like it was the beginning of the end, he said, “Well, of course you’re at the beginning of the end, but you’ve got a long way to go!” Then he started singing, “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” We rarely had a session where Reb Zalman didn’t break into song.
MM: One last question. Do you recommend that readers try to engage in in this level of wisdom talk with their peer groups?
SD: I think that there’s great value in doing this with a spiritual friend who is also interested in exploring these deep questions. But with a lightness—that’s the thing that I really want to get across. This shouldn’t be done like we’re going to face the grim reaper. It should be done like you’re heading off on an adventure. With Reb Zalman, I used to think of it as like a Lewis and Clark expedition. I would urge people to set out on their own journeys with great anticipation, excitement, and no expectations. There are no right or wrong answers. We’re just here to share the wonder.