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  • אומי לייסנר

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Just me and a grin in a tree

Just me and a grin in a tree (about a week in the life of a mid-life crisis)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, Harlem, 1951.

It is my fifteen-year-old daughter, knee-deep in an English project on the topic of dreams, who lays the Langston Hughes out before me. The poem catches me at a shaky spot in what is probably a typical mid-life crisis and reduces me to tears. I do what I do these days, run upstairs and hide in the bathroom. But I am soon discovered. “Imma,” yells my ten year-old from just outside the door, “I have a question for you. Does it make sense to die without fulfilling your destiny?”

I was dumbstruck, all over. On top of the Langston Hughes and what with the mid-life crisis, it was impossible not to feel like what he had asked was the other side of the same coin: Does it make sense to die without fulfilling your destiny? What happens to a dream deferred?

Why would a ten year-old ask a question of that magnitude? The explanation he gave me later in the day is simple, relatively. The anniversary of my mother’s death was coming up and my son was giving a little talk in his head. He was just saying how it is sad for us that Mommy has gone but that she had fulfilled her mission on earth and that it was her time to go, when suddenly it occurred to him: Would it be possible to die without having fulfilled one’s destiny? Help. Imma!

Yes, I did eventually give him an answer. I said, “Probably if you believe in God then no.” But the question wouldn’t go away — does it make sense to die without fulfilling your destiny? Because in reality, the belief-in-God answer contends just with destiny as God sees it. For us mortals, who don’t have the benefit of that divine overview, our greater, God-inspired/required role is essentially, so it seems, immaterial. It has no apparent connection to our lives. In other words, what is so alarming about the boy’s question is in as much as it asks: Does it make sense to live without fulfilling your destiny? Bring on the mid-life crisis!

What is a mid-life crisis, anyway? Probably just a term we devised to make ourselves feel better. It’s easier, I suppose, than calling it personal failure, a crisis of being, an eventual dawning upon one that that dream you once dreamed was no more than a dream. Like the Cheshire Cat, “it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.” (“`Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; `but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'”) This is much what a mid-life crisis feels like, like you, standing there, alone in the woods, with nothing but a grin in a tree to taunt you. And what would one say, were the grin but to open its mouth and ask something commonplace, like, “who might you be?”

“I don’t know my name,” sings 12-year old Grace VanderWaal. I came across her pretty much by chance, just as her first appearance on America’s Got Talent was going wildly viral. I was quite overcome when I saw her, so incredibly beautiful, with a gorgeous voice that tends to break in all the right places. Still, I must admit, after that once, I just couldn’t watch her any more, even after she had won the competition.

Thrown in was definitely some sympathy for the child, whose life, one may safely assume, will no longer be her own anymore and the question remains how well will she and her parents handle that, and whether they have any regrets at having exposed this budding flower to the brutal public light so early in its career. But I think the real reason why Grace became too painful for me to watch is harder for me to admit. I believe it was the sting of the growing comprehension that in a matter of minutes, this twelve year old had achieved more than you, sorry, I am likely to do in an entire life.

“Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself,” said George Bernard Shaw. My husband found these words embossed on a fridge magnet (without so much as a mention of George Bernard Shaw) and presented it to our 18-year-old on Rosh Hashana. We all ooh-ed and aah-ed. These days, the quote has clearly taken root. Our thirteen-year-old daughter periodically exposes me to the latest attempts of the likes of Mylie Cyrus or Justin Bieber to create and then recreate ad nauseum themselves and then themselves ad nauseum again. Then again, every selfie and yet another selfie some of her own peers appear to be so intent on reproducing ad nauseum, might just be an off-shoot of the same trend. To be sure, they all exude the same strong impression that inside the gorgeous garb, the cool look, the smile, there isn’t anyone at all.

How stark the contrast between this reality and the one depicted in an op-ed I came accross in the New York Times. At the time, we were exactly in the breech – between Bob Dylan’s having been announced recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and his having accepted it – and it is here that the commentator, Adam Kirsch enters. The piece opens with “It Ain’t Me Babe," a track released by Dylan in 1964, the same year in which the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre publicly refused to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature that he had just been awarded. The writer, said Sartre, must “refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” The op-ed goes on to discuss Sartre’s concept of “bad faith”:

Bad faith, Sartre explains in Being and Nothingness, is the opposite of authenticity. Bad faith becomes possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is, in the way that an inkwell simply is an inkwell. Rather, because we are free, we must ‘make ourselves what we are.’ In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this ‘being what one is not’ is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people.

Similarly, in an interview in that same year of 1964, Mr. Dylan was quoted as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.” By now, of course, we know that Dylan has taken the prize, and rightly so, as I see it. Today, as a 75 year-old man, with a life-time of achievements backed up behind him, such acknowledgement and reward is timely. How many great artists and thinkers and creators are never recognized, though some are in retrospect. “Too late!” one might react. But worse still, so it seems, are those who achieve fame “too early.” Just look at the case of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird — one highly-accoladed novel and her ability to write was lost.

“Lost” by David Wagoner.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

I locate this poem atop a nature-conservation site though I would venture that its reach is far and beyond. If no two trees are the same, and no two branches, how much more would that be so of you and of me. We are all born with a world within, some special talent, says Sir Ken Robinson. He argues that the questions we should be asking ourselves are not how intelligent or how creative we are, but instead how we are intelligent and how we are creative. Robinson claims that the current educational system is marring the process of each person’s discovering what his or her own inner-world is. That might explain why so many of us are left with that feeling of “I don’t know my name.”

The poem Lost, I should mention, originally came to my notice characteristically co-incidentally, that is, so it seems, this time via a friend, who had chosen its last few lines to footer her emails. In other words, like most of the other pieces cited herein, it’s not that I found Lost, Lost found me. And this is exactly where I am going. That is, I’m getting to thinking that life isn't about creating yourself, after all. Instead, in the manner of the forest, it’s about letting life find you.

How? Here’s the latest lesson my children taught me over the last few days. This time it concerns the youngest, bringing up the rear at the age of seven. The child is clearly very musical, but his parents might have overdone pointing that out to him. I realized this rather shockingly just a month into the violin lessons the boy was so intent on taking. Truthfully, this was not a path I had encouraged any child of mine to pick; the mere thought of it was enough to make my teeth screech. Still, as I have said, he’s the youngest, and he wanted it so much.

Things went awry from the first. Soon I understood that the snobbish stance of the violin at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of musical instrument is well-deserved; it’s an extremely complex instrument. We watched our child struggle through a month of lessons and weepy practice-sessions at home. The teacher began to hint that he might want to look at other alternatives, but the more we signaled this to our son, the faster he held on. Finally, things came to a head, with the teacher suggesting that there might be a physiological issue at play. He revealed his thoughts to my husband in a private conversation – but guess who was standing just outside the door? Oh the tears, all the way home. Later that night I spoke to budding musician about it. “Imma,” he said earnestly, “kol kach ratsiti lehatsliach (I so wanted to succeed)!”

Once again, I was numb all over. What had made a seven-year-old so aware of the drive to succeed? And here was I thinking that he had some deep connection to that highfalutin piece of wood — “Sweeti,” I begged him, “what is important is that you love what you are doing, that it makes you feel happy.” We looked up a few activities being offered at the local club house. He decided to give Capoeira a try. I signed myself up for a bi-weekly “film and lecture” course. They both took place on the Wednesday and we compared notes the next day. We were both happy.

So this is where I am taking things now. I am aiming to be happy. Easier said than done. Of course. Thinkers and therapists have struggled with the quandary for generations. In an article explaining Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy, Genrich L. Krasko quotes from a photocopied page he has among his papers (both the name of the author and the publication are missing):

To be happy we must live for something outside ourselves – another individual or people, a cause, a belief in God. To live only for ourselves is to exist in a world of one – and that brings misery. To be happy we must have hope, which is our commitment of time and energy to the future. We need to dream. To have no dream is to have no hope, and to have no hope is to have no reason to live.

I cut and paste the excerpt and send it on to the daughter with a dream project. I like what I have read. I like the part about happiness including living for something or someone outside ourselves, in the manner of Hillel the Elder’s "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?" But Rabbi Hillel also asks, “if not now, when?” and here is me, still wondering, “What now?”

I like the distinction between being happy and feeling joy, perhaps best annunciated in the discrepancy between the two Hebrew terms: osher as opposed to simcha. J.D. Salinger sees happiness as a solid, joy, a liquid, but he adds that, the difference “is always obvious much too late.” And here is me, still wondering, “What now?”

Viktor Frankl's recipe for happiness might have been lifted from a Slow Food cookbook. He says, “Listen carefully to what your life requires of you. Listen to your conscience. Think. Be patient, do not hurry. One day you will know. But this may be a long and difficult road till you have reached your destination…” As for me, I think I am going with one tiny step at a time. But one thing’s for sure, at the outset, I am taking success, certainly in the sense of public recognition, off my list of To Do’s.

“I'd no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is,” says Julia Roberts in Nottinghill. The crowds are fickle, says William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, they are easily swayed, and quick to forget. (“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!/O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,/Knew you not Pompey?”). All this and more: in a world in which anything you say can and probably will be used against you. Or without you, as in the case of the George Bernard Shaw quote, or the guy who wrote the piece on Happiness.To be sure, success is wont to deliver a warm pint of pure liquid joy but as for happiness and contentment, it seems all too often to portent their demise. At most, it ends you up in the Forever 27 Club. At least, it curtails your freedom, and in so doing your basic human right to be. Better, it would seem, in the manner of Sartre and Dylan, to let go of any need for public recognition. If it’s rightly yours, it’ll find its way back.

On a more positive note, I am setting myself simple though not necessarily easy-to-achieve aims, like getting enough sleep, steering away from negatives like anger and bitterness, and never losing count of my blessings. The magnet I received from the Master of the House on Rosh Hashana read “If I could choose again, I’d still choose you.” Get that, mid-life crisis and all! This one, I’m holding on to.

Finally, even on the understanding of the difference between liquid joy and solid happiness, given that I have nothing else to go by, I am simply trying to find what makes me feel good. One might say, in trying to be happy, I am trying to feel happy. In so doing, I am encouraging myself, like my kids, to try out new things, to explore each our own inner world, even as they lie there gasping for breath under years of dried out foliage and garbage dumped by the educational systems we have all been put through. I am also determined to enjoy the “old” things I do, from sitting on a train to being with my children, but now entirely, being in the moment. If nothing I do can make me feel happy in my work, then that one might need to go. (Dear God, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

Trying to be happy, makes me think of my mother. Once, in a rare heart-to-heart with her about motherhood, I remember her saying how all she wants is for her children to be happy. Clearly I only knew what she meant when I myself became a mother. But just now I am beginning to understanding it as a daughter too. I am even wondering whether feeling happiness might not be a gift from God, a personalized gift, a kind of internal compass, there to help us find our way out or around in the forest, each to our own inner-world, to join the grin with the cat, to make the deep connection between the human dream and divine destination. Because, really, living without feeling happy doesn’t make sense at all.

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