One of the many reasons I hope I am granted long life is that I think it is going to take me quite a while to finish rewiring my brain. For instance, if you are like me, a cache in your mind holds a photo album crammed with snapshots of decisive moments from your personal history. You know the moments I mean? The ones where experience gathers itself into a definite shape, so that each scene stands out as sharply as if it were outlined with pitch-black ink, and you can return to it whenever you wish (and sometimes when you don’t wish).
Some are moments of success and delight: the instant of hearing spectacularly good news, the second a wish comes true. But many are imprinted with life-lessons I would rather not have learned, and for me, almost all of these came from my mother, who embodied a potent combination of interia and drive. In my paradigmatic image of her, she is sitting at the dining-room table discharging her formidable and thwarted energy by simultaneously watching TV, reading a magazine, ordering others around, and propelling some snack from a bowl to her mouth with a pistonlike regularity.
Within the last day, two images popped out of the album and spread themselves open in my mind.
The first time, I was tidying up my apartment when one of those feelings of wild happiness came over me: there is no happening to anchor the sensation, just the grace of an unbidden delight in the uncanny luck of being alive in a body able to experience the beauty of the world, the gleaming reflection of wind-tossed leaves on a shiny tabletop, the way the light strikes an orchid that has just unfurled from its bud.
“I’m so happy,” I thought. And in an instant, I was at the dinner-table with my mother, a rare moment alone in our crowded little multigenerational household, and I had just asked if she was happy. I must have been fourteen or fifteen. “Happy-shmappy,” she said. “Who’s happy?”
Those words expressed a generational history: immigrants who had seen their families dematerialize in the chaos of World War II, and for whom survival was aspiration enough; women whose native intelligence had been suppressed until it could be concentrated into a soup-can life, into a world no larger than a family; families like mine that never belonged, lives lived just beyond the margins of normalcy in the territory nice people crossed the street to avoid. My mother was telling me not to hope for much from life, and I’ve spent a lifetime choosing to ignore that advice. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with some psychospiritual practices that dim its power. But I will have to practice a while before that page of the album disappears entirely.
The second visitation from the past was triggered by an exchange with an online suitor who read my profile, diagnosed my neurosis, and told me that I was setting myself up for disappointment. These email exchanges are tremendously useful and instructive. They can’t tell you if someone will be a good match; you can enjoy a delightful correspondence and then turn up for coffee and want to run the other way. But by surfacing some unbridgeable contradiction in perspective, they can tell you when to skip the coffee and click on the next profile.
I wrote back, demurring. As is my custom, grounded in Jewish practice, I offered a blessing: May the woman who embodies your desires be on her way to you right now. I do not know if blessing can actually shift outward reality, but I know from experience that offering such blessings has its own healing power. When you wish someone well, you are giving that person an opportunity to see him or herself in a state of well-being, the fulfillment of dreams. You are giving yourself a chance to practice open-heartedness, sending someone well wishes without the expectation of a return. Even blessing can be distorted, of course: “May you get a clue” is a criticism disguised as a blessing. But if you are aware of that danger and avoid it, in my experience, the practice is purely good.
My correspondent wrote again to provide a blistering critique of women in general and to say of me in particular that he felt it had been mean of me to offer this wish. And there she was again: same mother, same dining-room table, different conversation. In this one, repeated more times than I could count, my mother was leaning on me to do something distasteful, often a favor for someone to whom she was indebted or whom she wished to placate. “Do it for me,” she would say, “it will cost you so little and mean so much to me.” Yesterday, she was whispering in my ear, telling me to reply again, to offer a further explanation.
For a few seconds, I considered it. Then a new voice arose in my mind: “You dodged a bullet,” the voice said, “congratulations.” That’s what I mean by rewiring: unlearning the distorted lessons that linger despite strong intentions to reject them.
This is the same for an entire people as for a single individual. How many destructive habits do we repeat because we are prompted by the well-thumbed pages of our collective album to follow a directive that leads to a bad, old place? Consider all that has been justified by a single page in this country’s album, the one labeled 9/11. What’s true for the country is true for me: I’ve been lugging my mental album of moments for too long.
Can one give oneself a blessing? I hope so, because the one I want to offer is this, and I’ll share it with you: “May we live long, well, and awake enough to open and edit every page of the album, freeing ourselves from its grip.”
“I Feel The Same” by Chris Smither, Bonnie Raitt’s version. (I first heard this song by Esther Phillips; if you can find her version, it’s worth a listen.)
Ain’t it hard to believe that you ever
Lived this way before?
All that nothing,
Causes all that pain.
Please believe me,
I feel the same.
“May we live long, well, and awake enough to open and edit every page of the album, freeing ourselves from its grip.”
What about the as yet untouched pages? Would you want to be capable of opening them while completely un-tethered to the black ink drawings?
Have you thought of what it would be like to rip out a page?
I must have sounded more obliterative than I felt. It’s just a metaphor, of course, but my idea is that the problematic pages recede into normal memory: no black line, no unbidden prohibitive appearances. But I definitely am not courting amnesia!
Hope all is well with you.
You want the memories, but not necessarily the negative emotions they sometimes conjur up. You want to remember your mother sitting at that table in your multi-generational apartment in all her depression over a life that hadn’t gone the way in which she had envisioned – without that memory being able to hijack your own state of mind in the present. Earlier in this blog you’ve written about how everyone has two levels of thinking, one fast and immediate, the other slow and methodical. The fast mind, (did you call that level(1) thinking?), reads the message from the gentleman from the dating site. Immediately you’re hijacked by how it felt at 14 years old to be told by your mother “Happy scmappy. Who’s happy?”. That’s hard wiring, and you have no control over that.
You can, however, control the stories you tell yourself. Every emotionally hijacked moment comes with it a pretty well defined set of stories we tell ourselves. In this instance, you seem to have told yourself (among probably a whole slew of other things), that this man thinks he has diagnosed your neurosis. From there you really did reply to him with a heart-felt message, basically wishing him the best – which is 10 times more than he would ever do for you. And for that, you are definitely on the right track. Why not create a storyline, for people like that gentleman, that doesn’t even include you? Instead of him sitting at home randomly diagnosing strangers on a dating site, why not tell yourself he just lost his job by being forced to retire early? Or something more dramatic, like, in the past three months he has been to the funeral of three close friends and/or siblings?
If you feel you must reply, maybe keep the initial message a lot simpler – don’t even mention the woman of his dreams, that can be construed as rubbing his miserable existence in. Definitely, if someone has randomly chosen you as their dumping ground (on the internet) and you must reply, you should be telling them in a neutral non-hudgemental way, that it isn’t acceptable to you. Something along the lines of, “I didn’t desrve that.”, can go a long way to restoring that balance that they upset. If they wish to fight further, it leaves them punching at air, not you.
Likewise, if you’re on the freeway and someone cuts across three lanes of traffic, forcing you to slam on your brakes, then takes off like nothing happened – what you tell yourself at that moment can go a long way in determining how long it will take for you to calm down. If you find yourself thinking along the lines of what an inconsiderate son-of-b he was and how his negligence could have killed you – these are the pre-set storylines we all have that come to us when our emotions have been hijacked. In this case anger at the indignation. Bad drivers will always be out there. If you tell yourself that the guy who just cut you off has 15 minutes to make to the hospital to transuse blood for his dying brother (definitely unlikely, but could have happened), you’ll find 5 minutes down the road you will have forgotten the whole thing, and that beating heart will have slowed down to just about normal.
General feedback: Your words often touch me in places of sadness and joy.
Thanks, Bob. So good to hear from you. I hope you are very well!
Mz ‘Get Your Hopes Up’ — glad you gave up, and sooner rather than later.
The guy wasn’t open to anything you could provide.
But, you know. Even that nagging urge that you are trying to reprocess. I think maybe it came from a slightly better place. That you were trying to give something — insight, a postive vibe, or (if the guy was open) maybe something even more valuable.
It’s like you are in an interesting, unfamiliar urban area. Looking at the ethnic restaurants. You are hungry and at the same time excited by possibility. The process.
Other people are starving. They just want to eat.
I do understand: it’s exactly what your comment is offering me, no? You are a subtle fellow, “Nick.” Thanks.
Your writing is pure genius! You have an ability to put to paper thoughts that for a lot us remain undefined images and impressions. When I see someone like yourself make it all seem effortless, I get jealous. I know it takes a long time and practice to get to your level, I just wish I could download your memory engrams directly to my neural networks instead. I would really like to read more of your experiences helping young men deal with the draft in the 1960s. Is there a book or a collection I could obtain? You’ve been an overwhelming inspiration since I discovered your blog.
May the man of your desires be on his way to you at this very moment!
Gord . ..
Good morning, Gordon, and many thanks for the lovely compliments and good wishes! There is little that pleases a writer so much as waking up to a message that her writing is appreciated. I’m so touched to learn that it has inspired you.
I haven’t written anything like a book that specifically focuses on the draft counseling. If you go to the blog tab on this site and enter “draft counselor” in the search box, you will find several that mention (or at least touch on) the subject.
It’s funny, I was just talking about this with a friend yesterday, how different it must be to be young in a country where wars are fought at a distance and no one is forced to make a personal decision—whereas a draft notice really concentrated the recipient’s mind (and life)! Of course, I wouldn’t wish it back, but it is interesting to contemplate how political life might have been different with it, hm?
all good wishes,