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.”
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.