Give this to Wisconsin: it’s cold and Spartan, but it gives you time to think.
I came home to think. This on my mother’s advice. “New York is just getting to you,” she said. “You need some alone time.”
It is my mother’s contention that I have avoided thinking for a long time by keeping myself very busy, and this is probably true. I like to be busy. I like to feel useful. Even little things, like organizing my closet or finishing an article, grant me a renewed sense of purpose and validation. ‘Look!’ I think to myself. ‘I know how to do things. I can do what needs to be done. What can I do next?’
That was certainly how I intended to deal with the long, drawn-out and extremely painful demise of my last long-term relationship (ugh, I hate that term). We had known for months that it couldn’t work, but were close friends before we dated. It’s never a good time to lose your best friend, you know? So we put it off. “We’ll talk about it later.” “We have time.” We swung back and forth, back and forth. I kept busy, which is a thing I do well.
But eventually it had to end, and all the busy work in the world couldn’t stop little whispers from slipping in through the cracks. When my mother suggested coming home, I thought, “Perfect! Home. I’ll be completely distracted.” And that became another way for me to package everything up and move it to the attic of my head, with big messy labels in marker that read, “Deal With Eventually.”
Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I always forget how quiet it is here. Parents have work, siblings have school, and all the kids I went to school with live in other cities and continents now, with other people. There’s no one on the sidewalks here—everyone drives—and it’s bitingly cold, and there’s white snow everywhere (I say white to distinguish it from New York snow, which is yellow, as you are no doubt aware.) I don’t know if it was the quiet or the stillness (there’s only so much work you can do from home), or both, but I’ve definitely had time to think this week.
And it’s no wonder I put it off. Alone this week, I’ve been forced to confront some truly frightening ideas. I have become a person riddled with self-doubt, uncertainty, and fear. I don’t think there’s any one event that made me that way: looking back over this blog, I see a progression of thoughts and ideas, a period of time that’s led me to this point, now, where I fight myself constantly. And in this week of no distractions I think I’ve figured out what has been making me so miserable. At 22, I have somehow become possessed of the following beliefs:
1) the most important thing you can do in life is get married
2) my incapability of doing this represents me failing at life, or not deserving to succeed
3) as punishment, I’m going to live the rest of my life alone, which will become more and more painful as I get older
This is messed. Up. I know it’s messed up. Or at least, I would know, intellectually, if I stopped to think about it. But it’s amazing how you can go through your days and weeks quietly believing something you haven’t even defined clearly. And it can look ridiculous when you set it down on paper, but still be true.
Well, true without being right. This person I’ve become is not me. I fought not to think about this, but today in particular, on a quiet Shabbos afternoon, walking down the same streets I’ve walked every year through grade school and high school and even in college, I realized that I have been missing the point.
I think ultimately, what everyone struggles to have and to hold onto is meaning. We want to feel like we count, like our lives count. In Judaism, in theory, meaning is built into our lives through religion, through tefilla, through Torah study, and through family. Family, though it has its challenges, is an instant source of meaning: it gives you a framework and a context to live your own life, a way of defining yourself and your role in the community. This is easier when you’re younger. Who am I? I am so-and-so’s daughter, so-and-so’s sister. I am part of that family.
I think that in part, this is a reason why so many Orthodox people date and marry young, and it can be a source of anxiety and fear for those that don’t. Though marriage has other, equally enduring challenges, it affixes your place on the earth. You have your work cut out for you, sort of. You matter to someone, and what you do together will matter in sacred and familiar ways.
It is much harder to ascribe meaning to your life and actions when you are not closely tied to other people. This is not to say that it can’t be done or isn’t done every day by many people with stunning success—only that it’s harder. I started thinking about myself. What do I do that matters? Who am I? A freelance writer for a public relations bureau? An administrative assistant in a university department? Um. Good luck getting your life-achievement points there.
Then I realized that again, I was looking in the wrong places. I am not a job description, anymore than I’m just a daughter, just a sister, and in truth, any more than any of my married friends are just wives or husbands. I have been going about this whole process wrong. I’ve even been going about the self-reliancy and needing-other-people-to-make-you-happy thing wrong.
I found myself sitting on the rusty swing set in my backyard and asking myself this: What was I put in the world to do? What are the things that I can do? What do I want to do? If G-d took me back tomorrow, what would I have wanted to say that I did?
Here are the answers I came up with:
I want to write.
I want to write stories that will be mirrors for people. Things that will reflect their own lives back to them, with all of the complexity, all of the intricacy and detail, the trials and triumphs that are woven into a person’s life. I want people to be able to read things I’ve written and say, “Finally – a feeling I’ve always struggled with, and now I have words for it,” or, “I know so many people like that and have never understood them—and now, through this character, I do,” or really just, “Yes—I understand my life and my world a little more for having read this, and I see that I live in a beautiful, fascinating world.”
I want the stories I write to be love poems to G-d. I want to notice all the little things, the painstaking details that no one notices, that together compose the textured universe we all move around and live our lives in. I want to write stories that will serve as a mirror up to my Creator, too. I want them to say, “Look, G-d! I’m not going to live my entire life like one of your ants, scuttling around from sandhill to sandhill and never looking up. I see You everywhere, in every thing You’ve formed, and all Your creations are lovely. And I am grateful to be alive and to have lived in Your world, for a minute or an hour or however long You see fit for me to be here.”
That is my personal mission. It won’t be easy, but even I, with all my doubt and all my insecurities, believe that it is within me to achieve.
And as for those other things, about not being good at things and dying alone—I am sure they will continue to trouble me, because of my age and where I am in life. It’s just part of the game right now. But if at the end of every day, I can look back at those two paragraphs and say, “Am I doing this? Am I using my talents to create meaning and sacredness for other people? Am I honing my awareness of my Creator? Am I establishing a genuine relationship with Him? Am I remembering my purpose in life?”
I think that if I can do that, then I, too, will have my work cut out for me. I will have a place where I belong. And I will be, once again, too busy to think.
Or at least, too busy to think about things no one can control.