And I said to him:
Are there answers to all of this?
And he said:
The answer is in a story
And the story is being told.
And I said:
But there is so much pain
And she answered, plainly:
Pain will happen.
Then I said:
Will I ever find meaning?
And they said:
You will find meaning
Where you give meaning.
The answer is in a story
And the story isn’t finished.
-Pádraig Ó Tuama, “Narrative theology #1”
Sometimes we struggle to find meaning—especially in times of pain or in periods of transition. And we can feel so burdened by life that we can hardly bring ourselves to ask the big questions.
In such times there is great comfort to be found in stories—in sharing our stories and hearing the stories of others. In doing so, we connect to the collective consciousness. We see that our story is one of so many stories that have known joy and loss and confusion and growth.
And maybe we recognize that meaning isn’t always found in answers; maybe it is found in living our stories, being present in our stories, and remembering that each new breath brings freshness, because as Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, the story isn’t finished.
Guys like us are the loneliest guys in the world.
-John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
Loneliness is one of the most profound and shared of human experiences. We can feel lonely when we are physically alone, but we can feel an even deeper sense of isolation in a crowd of people or despite having hundreds of Facebook “friends” or Instagram followers.
Why? Because I think what we are seeking is real connection. We want to see and be seen. We want to love and be loved.
But finding real connection isn’t easy. And finding that right balance of real connection and healthy alone time is also a challenge! What is important is to know what your needs are—that you spend time alone when you need to and that you find people who nurture you, rather than sap your energy.
Next week will usher in the Jewish Holiday Season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Sukkot, about three weeks later. And like Thanksgiving, New Years and Christmas, these holidays can be wonderful times of togetherness and also overwhelming times of togetherness.
And this is where I think loneliness can actually serve a very important purpose. That first little sensation of loneliness can serve as a wake-up call, reminding us that we need some self-care, telling us that maybe we need more time with others, or maybe we need time alone. Whatever it is, listen to it, affirm it and—to the best of your ability—care for yourself, without guilt or shame.
Whatever holidays you celebrate, loneliness is a real issue, and something we face throughout our lives. But I think we can turn the awareness of loneliness into a dynamic and loving inner-dialogue, directing us toward deeper and more fulfilling interaction.
If you realize what the real problem is – losing yourself – you realize that this itself is the ultimate trial.
I can say, from personal experience, that the worst I’ve ever felt in my life was when I felt lost. And I don’t mean the good kind of lost—that feeling of flow we get when we are painting or riding a bicycle or writing or performing surgery—when we feel connected to something bigger and powerful and meaningful. I mean the exact opposite; the feeling that comes when we feel disconnected, cut off, alone and abandoned, when we experience the dark night of the soul.
But this dark night of the soul—I believe—is actually not something to be feared or dreaded; rather I think it is a whisper reminding us to return to our truest self, as well as an invitation to go deeper into uncharted internal territory.
But getting lost is so easy! If we love another or we love our jobs or our animals or we work as caretakers, we can get lost in the needs of another. We can forget our unique goals and purpose and lose that connection and flow. It can happen in dysfunctional relationships and healthy relationships. It can happen without us realizing it and it can happen with a few or many aspects or people in our lives. But really, all these things pulling us away from ourselves—are just a distraction; they, as Joseph Campbell says, are the real problem.
And so, the ultimate trial, as he continues to say, is to stay found—to stay connected to your individual specific purpose, your joy, your bliss. Because that is why you are here! You are here to do something on this planet that ONLY you can do, and you will not feel joyful or found or content or at peace if you are not living your purpose.
So take some time—every day—and check in and ask yourself, are you living your purpose? If you feel lost, how can you get back? How can you nurture and love yourself back to remembering or discovering your truest self, your connection to something greater? Only you know the answer to this. And, maybe in the quiet moments of your day, you will feel the whisper calling you back.
Nostalgia is a luxury.
-Zadie Smith, Swing Time
I was a young and idealistic graduate student of Russian literature when I met my future husband in St. Petersburg. For our first date, we went to two museums—the Yusupov Palace and the Hermitage—and as we wandered through ornate rooms and past priceless treasures, I asked him if he was in love with Russia as much as I was. I expected this educated and cultivated man to share my romantic ideals, but he had a very different take on Russia.
He looked at me quizzically and said, “My people experienced the pogroms and fled en masse to America to escape the horrors of Russia’s secret police. No, I am not so romantic about Russia.”
I knew he was Jewish, but I hadn’t considered Russia’s treatment of the Jews when I had asked my question. I wasn’t Jewish and had no personal connection to this period of history. A few years later, I would return to Russia as a married Jewish woman, and right away I heard anti-Semitic slurs and comments—some directed at me and some at others. Why hadn’t I noticed this before?
I still love Dostoevsky and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and clips of Nureyev dancing give me the chills, but no, I have not been nostalgic for a long time, because nostalgia, as Zadie Smith writes, is a luxury. It is a luxury of those who did not experience the pogroms or Jim Crow or torture or disenfranchisement or ridicule.
We cannot erase the periods of history that make us uncomfortable. At the same time, we can’t disentangle these challenging periods from the greats they produced: Nina Simone, Count Bassie, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Harriet Tubman, Chagall, Spinoza, Jonathan Larson and Gertrude Stein. I mourn the sorrows they experienced; I am grateful for what they produced.
I can’t assume to know another’s experience, but I can ask. In this, I am reminded of Joseph Conrad’s famous statement about his intention in writing: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your desserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask. Yet, asking is just the beginning. There is so much more that we can do, tangible things—getting involved in our communities, voting for policies that we believe in, and helping others.
Everyday we are given new opportunities to look honestly at our past and work toward a bright and beautiful future.
But man is not made for defeat…A man can be destroyed but not defeated.
-Ernest Hemingway, Old Man and the Sea
Hemingway’s Santiago is one of my favorite literary heroes.
Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an aging fisherman, who has failed to catch anything for 84 days straight. But, despite his failure to catch any fish, and despite the ridicule and criticism he has received from his fellow fisherman, he does not give up and determines to catch a big fish. Most of the story takes place over the course of a few days, in which he catches the big fish, survives numerous shark attacks and loses the fish, and then miraculously makes it back to shore alive.
Santiago is a fighter and will do whatever he needs to survive; he endures painful cuts and scrapes, eats food that makes him ill, and bears the weight of the fish on his body, as he takes him back to shore. Santiago is determined not to give up, and as the above quote points out—while he understands that failure is part of the journey, he knows that it’s not the whole story. And this, I believe, is something we too easily forget. We think that success is only happy endings, but sometimes success involves important lessons learned. Real success, I believe, is not allowing ourselves to be defeated by negativity—whether it is negative self-talk or negative vibes in our midst. It’s not always easy and there are moments when we can feel so low. And that’s ok; we just need to pick ourselves up again and in the words of the amazing Curtis Mayfield, we need to “keep on keeping on”.
We need more lovin’
We need more money, they say
Change is gonna come
Like the weather
They say forever
When they’re in between
Notice the blue skies
Notice the butterflies
Stop and smell the flowers…
There’s so much beauty in the world
Always beauty in the world…
-Macy Gray, Beauty in the World
Today is election-day in Missouri. Walking into the polls this morning to cast my vote, I passed numerous signs and billboards promising a better future. And it got me thinking…
Macy Gray, with her rich and raspy voice expresses how I feel about this election day and—even more—about our current political climate in her song, Beauty in the World. Regardless of ones political affiliation, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who is not dissatisfied with the state of affairs. And so we cling to politicians’ promises of a better future. But what about now? How do we deal with today?
It is imperative that we live with conviction and purpose and recognize our responsibility to be a part of this better future we wish to see. At the same time, if we are only focused on this unclear future, we can lose sight of the blessings (even in the midst of trials and tribulations) in our midst.
Perhaps we can lighten our emotional load a bit by looking up, and noticing the blue skies or flowers in bloom, by embracing those we love, by savoring a good meal, enjoying a bubble bath or yoga class, or appreciating all the little acts of kindness we witness every day. Because, even while there is pain and sorrow and war much that needs to change, there is beauty in the world.
The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication, nor any membership in literature.
-John Steinbeck, 1962 Nobel Prize Speech
John Steinbeck’s characters are flawed, complicated individuals, often with rocky beginnings and horribly dysfunctional families. But, he leaves them room to break family patterns and re-create themselves. In the nature v. nurture debate, Steinbeck favored nurture. He believed that no one was beyond redemption, and with a little love, patience and courage, anything was possible.
Yet we are all well acquainted with the Biblical references to the sins of the fathers—the idea that we are destined to repeat mistakes made by previous generations. And there is truth to this; without awareness and some brutally honest self-work it’s hard to erase the pain of the past. We see how those abused often become abusers or how neglected children of work-aholic parents often become the same kind of neglecting parents to their own children. We do what we know—regardless of how unhealthy it is.
My first cousin died this morning. He was younger than me, and died of Congestive Heart Failure—the result of years of drug addiction. He grew up in a dysfunctional home. So did his father, my mother’s brother. My cousin continued the dysfunction he learned from his father, which he learned from my grandfather. The chain was not broken. What saddens me most is not his death, but his life—the fact that he did not break the chain of dysfunction.
But my mom did, bless her. And that is why I agree with Steinbeck. I believe in the perfectibility of man. I believe that we can change and it’s not inevitable to continue the sins of the fathers. We can stop telling ourselves the same old storylines. We can stop living out the same old tropes of generations past. Each moment is an opportunity to re-create ourselves—to be more open, more loving, more courageous, more authentic, more forgiving. We can be what we want to be. We are not destined to commit the sins of the fathers; we are as free as we choose to be.
This girl I know needs some shelter
But she don’t believe anyone can help her
She’s doing so much harm doing so much damage…
Now you can’t change the way she feels
But you can put your arms around her…
–Protection, by Massive Attack
This is one of my favorite songs by the British band, Massive Attack. It carried me through much of graduate school, on long lonely days sitting in the library until the wee hours of the morning. So, when it popped up on my playlist the other day, I was transported back to a time in my life when there was a lot of pain. And I re-experienced it somewhat, though from a distance and not as viscerally.
And that was timely—especially being here in Israel—where we recently observed Tisha B’av, the Jewish Day of Mourning, regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, and a day when we remember sad events in the history of the Jewish People. We are invited also to reflect on many of the current problems or challenges facing our world, our communities, our loved ones and even ourselves.
Dealing with the sadness is not easy. Very often we react either by getting stuck in pain or by denying it altogether, but somewhere in there is a balance. Massive Attacks’ words offer a sane and loving approach to dealing with pain. The song tells us that we can’t change feelings but we can embrace them.
When comforting others, we need to remember that we can’t remove their pain, but we can love them and console them. We can remind them that they are not alone. And when comforting ourselves, we can exercise self-love and non-judgment and create space for these very uncomfortable sensations. We can throw our arms around ourselves and remind ourselves that we can persevere.
Creating space for the reality of pain might seem ridiculous and somewhat counterintuitive, but it will open us up to deeper parts of ourselves and deeper levels of love and compassion for others.
The process of putting the thing you value most in the world out for the assessment of a stranger is a confidence-shaking business even in the best of times.
-Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty
Truth and Beauty, a memoir about the friendship between writers Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy, was one of the most difficult books I never read.
A few weeks ago, a friend gave me her copy of Truth and Beauty and asked me to give her my take on their friendship. Having never read anything by either author and knowing almost nothing about their lives, I entered into my reading without any preconceptions. But, just a few pages in, I was sickened by Patchett’s assessment of herself, of Grealy, and of their friendship. In the end, I only managed to read the first and last chapters of the book.
Why? Because it hit a sore spot. Because their friendship, unfortunately, reminded me of too many unhealthy friendships I have had.
In the above quote, Patchett is referring to the vulnerability an artist experiences, but I think it is not too unlike the vulnerability a friend experiences. And, it is Patchett’s abuse of Grealy’s vulnerability that is the source of my upset. Patchett portrays Grealy as needy and self-absorbed, and paints herself as the stoic and forbearing friend, who puts up with her friend’s addictions and dysfunctions. Later in the book Patchett justifies her approach: In our friendship I had spent a lot of time telling Lucy to pull herself up, to get over the past and move on. That was my role, the best of my Catholic education in action, and I didn’t worry about it because I knew that she had other friends, friends who were as close to her as I was, who were more tender.
That’s a cop out, in my opinion. In the end, I don’t think Patchett really liked Grealy.
Real friendship requires truth; and most significantly, it requires both friends to be honest about their regard for one another. The only way we can be truly vulnerable in a friendship is if there exists true AND mutual trust, love, respect, and admiration. Tolerating someone is not ok. Needing someone who obviously can’t meet your needs is not ok. Finding the beautiful balance of a true friendship is not easy…but it’s worth it.
I encourage you to take a look at your friendships. Are they mutual? Do they drag you down or make you feel needy? Or, do they give you wings and encourage you to see the best in yourself? I hope the latter, because you are worth it!
The best boundaries are boundaries that aren’t defensive or offensive; they just exist.
From “NLP-The Essential Guide”
I love open kitchens; the ones with open shelving, glass, and light colors. There’s something so inviting about their simplicity and openness. No mess, no confusion, no wondering where stuff is; it’s all out there in the open. You know where you stand.
I think boundaries are a lot like that.
Boundaries provide definition, clarity, and security, yet all too often they are a source of stress, inner-turmoil, self-doubt and conflict. But, maybe we can start taking the drama out of boundary-setting.
First of all, when possible, we should clear our lives of any kind of toxicity—animal, mineral, vegetable, etc. But, despite our best efforts to live clean and pure lives, we are exposed to toxins; maybe it’s polluted air or hormones in the milk or maybe a nasty boss or maybe—perhaps the most challenging—a family member.
When dealing with toxic people we first have to accept that we cannot change another person. Let me repeat myself—we cannot change another person. And very often—not only will the person not change, he or she won’t even think there is a problem! So, all we can do is just let go and let them be.
But, and here is the empowering part, you decide the parameters of the relationship. Your first priority is inner harmony, not family-harmony or office-harmony. The best thing you can do for the world—really—is take care of yourself, and only you can decide what that means. Weigh the options, make a decision and honor your decision.
Just visualize the open kitchen—the light streaming through the translucent window, the clean counters, the wildflowers in the terracotta vase. No one is going to come in your kitchen and tell you how to arrange your dishes; likewise, no one is going to come in your life and set your boundaries. Keep it simple. Keep it clean. Let them be.
Every thing must have a beginning…and that beginning must be linked to something that went before…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself…Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.”
-Mary Shelley, from Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings”
Maria Popova’s blog “Brain Pickings” is one of my favorites. I definitely suggest you check it out! In a recent post, she quoted Mary Shelley as part of a larger conversation on the multi-faceted nature of the creative process.
I have been blessed this summer to spend a few weeks in Paris and several in Tel Aviv with my youngest daughter, and it’s been a very art-focused trip—with visits to museums, art classes, and hours spent in cafes with our sketchbooks. Hence, subject of creativity is one very close to my heart.
I believe that Shelley was expressing here the necessity of the artist to recognize that nothing exists in a vacuum and that it is the artist’s responsibility to perceive and expose the hitherto unmasked essence of the subject of one’s art.
I’d like to go one step further and address how the artist goes about doing this.
What I have been struck with this summer—whether wandering through museums or trying to decipher the multi-layered meanings of graffiti, is that inspiration springs from dialogue. It is a dialogue between the artist and Source and a dialogue amongst artists.
When you look at a Picasso painting, you see the influence of Braque. When you read Rilke, you hear his conversations with Rodin. These artists weren’t copying one another; they were inspiring one another. One example of this is the recent collaborative poetry project, “Envelopes of Air”, written by Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz, which is a series of eight poems written in correspondence between these two poets. The result is beautiful. Inspiring.
Taking it even one more step further, beyond the artistic dialogue and into our every day lives…I think more and more of us are recognizing that neither do we live in a vacuum.
If, like Michelangelo looking at a slab of marble as a sculpture waiting to be set free, we could see each person or place or experience as a work of art waiting to be set free, we would have a very different relationship to our fellow humans and to our own personal experiences. We would be more open, more curious, more encouraging, looking for connections rather than discord. And if, like Picasso and Braque, we entered into dialogue with more of our fellow human beings—not just the ones in our echo chamber—we would begin to have conversations about others’ joys and pain and struggles and questions, and we might shift some of our thinking.
And then maybe, this collaborative dialogue would inspire us to create beautiful art together.
We have to be careful of saying ‘our culture’; we are all citizens of this world, and we travel. If you bring music from somewhere, you bring it to your way and say ‘this is what inspired me’. We can’t talk about cultural appropriation.
I am a huge fan of singer, songwriter, activist Angelique Kidjo, but even I was a bit skeptical when I heard she was planning to cover it its entirety the Talking Heads album “Remain in the Light”.
I decided I’d listen to the whole album on my morning walk, and wow—it was beyond amazing!
No, it’s not the Talking Heads, but Kidjo wasn’t trying to duplicate the 1980 masterpiece. Rather, she wanted to capture the essence of the album and relate it to our current global concerns.
Kidjo’s message is clear. We are one people. Yes, we come from different cultures and speak different languages, but we are one, and none of us can thrive if one of us is suffering. She expresses this by masterfully weaving together the Talking Heads’ words and lyrics with her native Yoruba language and the many musical styles—Afropop, Caribbean zouk, Latin, and Congolese Rumba to name a few—that have influenced her.
Kidjo’s album reminded that I am a mixture of so many influences—so many cultures and religions and individuals. I own none of these influences, and whatever I have—whether it be knowledge or recipes or style or traditions or time or wisdom—I want to share it. You give to me; I give to you. I think the world would function much better if we realized that actually we are all appropriating culture. Let’s open our arms, open our eyes, open our hearts, open our windows and let the light in…so that we may remain in the light.