Monday, August 16, 2010

Sandcastle Manifesto

We all have our frustrations, especially in dating. Here is mine: I have the haunting sensation that I’m building sandcastles on the beach. I build and sculpt and craft, and in the back of my mind even as I build I mourn my work. My hands mold the sand, with care, thought, and when I permit myself, with affection; but I know with unrelieved certainty that it will all be washed away by the tide. I build now, but it will be as if my hands never touched the sand. I build, but I will shape only mud.

They say this about the Jews in Egypt, that one of the most debilitating tasks the Pharoah assigned to break them was to force Jews to build on quicksand (was it quicksand?). As soon as you laid down one round of bricks, they were swallowed into the earth. Effort wasted, in vain, without purpose: this is what broke the Jews. And there are moments when the futility of it stumps me, too. I get a funny taste at the back of my mouth. It is difficult to look at the flat, wet sand and dip your hands in again.

When a recent breakup loomed, inescapable, on my horizon, I found myself struggling with a feeling that is mostly foreign to me: anger. I was very angry. It was a formless anger, too, because I had no idea who I was angry at, or what about. I had not been hurt or wronged. It wasn't going to work out. Sometimes things don’t. There had been and would be nothing especially awful about it. Yet talking with my mother on webcam, agonizing about whether it was really necessary, whether there was anything I could do differently, listening as she repeated to me what I already knew, at some point I gave up and cried. Was it embarrassing? Sure. But listen, if you can’t cry in front of your mother…right?

My mother is tough. She’s tougher than me, for sure. And so I count on her to be tough for me sometimes. She is my drill sergeant: she makes me run when I’m too tired to walk, forces me to do the things I don’t want to do so I can learn that they are not too hard, not undoable, and next time, I won’t be afraid of them. She has no time for nonsense and even less for self-pity. And she has no doubts.
So I froze when, on the web cam, watching me cry, my mother suddenly stopped trying to reason with me and began to sob herself.

“What do you want me to tell you?” she said. “What do you want me to say? How am I supposed to know what will happen? I can promise you that everything will be okay, but I would be lying. I don’t know how things will turn out. What do you want me to do for you?”

I sat there, looking at her, too surprised to say anything. There are so many things that happen behind the scenes in your life. Your bosses, your friends, but I think especially your parents. You forget that there are things they don’t show you. It never occurred to me that it hurt my mother, tough as nails and always right, to see me unhappy, just as it never occurred to me that there were problems she could not fix, questions she did not have answers to.

I had always brought my problems to her. Each time I would end with: “So what do you think I should do?” And she would tell me. Sometimes she would say, “Figure it out,” but in my head I knew that just meant, “Figure it out for yourself—you’re 16/18/21!” not “Figure it out because I don’t know.” She always had the right card hidden up her sleeve, and she would produce it with a flourish once I’d deduced it for myself.

But this time she had no trump.

It dovetailed with something a friend of mine likes to say. “You can’t depend on other people to make you happy,” she says. “If you can’t make yourself happy, no one can do it for you.” Usually when she talks about this, she is talking about the danger—scarily everywhere and invisible in the Orthodox community—of perceiving marriage as a solution. “Nothing you’re miserable about now gets made better by complicating it with another person,” she says. “If you have issues before you get married, you will have issues after you get married.” Usually I agree with her about this. It makes sense to me that if you wait for a guy to solve your struggles for you, you will be waiting a long time. But I had never really listened to what she was saying before. You can’t depend on other people to make you happy—not guys, not friends, not even your mother.

It’s not that you can’t trust them, or that they wouldn’t do everything in their power to see you happy, or that they don’t help. Of course they care. Of course they help. But to make you, at the core of your being, a happy person? A fulfilled person? A person whose life has meaning?

Who builds meaningfully.

That’s the work of a lifetime. How could any other person do that for you?

“Your sister,” my mother said, “is upset that we didn’t buy her the toy she wanted in the store today. If I buy you that, will you be happy?”

I sat there, tissues knotted in my hand, and looked at her. I was not crying anymore. It suddenly seemed silly to me that I had cried. I felt bad that I had made my mother cry—-I had asked her to do something impossible, repeatedly, and it wasn’t fair. I was an adult, with an adult’s problems, now. It was not my mother’s job, not my mother’s role, to make me happy anymore, just as it was not my best friends’ and would not be my husband’s. This time, I realized, it was up to me. Up to me to wash my hands in the water, clear the debris and keep building-—not for nothing, not in vain, but because I choose to believe one day, something will stand. Because I want it to. Because I will work at it.

Because nothing is easy, and you have to work to make a life that is worth living. And if you accept that there is no alternative—as I do—then there is nothing else to be done, and no point in complaining about it.

Looking at my mother, thinking this, it dawned on me that I didn’t need her to know what to do. I knew what to do. It was hard, and some of it would be painful, but it was the only way. And I felt a weird sense of relief and responsibility, taking this burden off my mother’s shoulders and putting it back on my own, where it belonged. For the first time, I understand that I must try to face my fears and my frustrations entirely alone-—but by doing this, I am also empowering myself to find their answers.

I charge myself with the mission of my own happiness. I will remember and pursue the things I came here to do. I will cultivate the beauty I find, between people and in the complex and intricate world around me, and remember my connection to my Creator. These things will stay. I will not let bitterness and defeat define me.

I will not be a slave without G-d in Egypt.


Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Wow. I'm speechless, for once.

Chazak, be strong, and make a good life for yourself.

2:27 PM  
Blogger katrina said...

Great post, Fudge. I admire you. You are making very mature decisions, much more mature ones than I made at your age. You are right that getting married doesn't solve all of your problems, although it has many upsides. Good luck with your search.

11:08 AM  

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