Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Looking Forward, Looking Back

April 7, 2000
Timmi continues to do quite well, although her mood has been somewhat more unstable; it is easy at this point for her to go quite quickly from euphoria to extreme irritability. I hope as her physical condition stabilizes, her emotional state will as well. At any rate, most of the time she is quite cheerful, and is still busy will her plans. Her physical state has in fact been stable this week, with some GVH but not enough to bother her too much; when it does bother her she handles it quite well. We just hope the GVH is busy successfully fighting the cancer.

We are also happy to let you all know that on the Monday evening two days before the Seder (April 17), Timmi will be appearing in a production being staged by her Theater class from Pelech, and the public is invited. All the proceeds will go to the Society for the War on Cancer. The production will be at the Gerard Behar Center, at 8 or 8:30; full details will follow in a later update. In the meantime, save the evening for a nice break from Pesach* madness.

By the way, Timmi needs a cigarette holder as one of her props. Anyone out there have one or know where to get one?

After the production, Timmi will start studying her friends' notes from her Hebrew literature classes and intends to finish that matriculation exam. After that, we'll see. Does anyone know of a part-time, physically untiring job that she might do? She is extremely responsible and reliable, but has to have enough flexibility in case of medical problems. It would mean a lot to her, though, to start doing something "normal".

Shabbat Shalom to all.


*Pesach – Passover.

April 26, 2005
Like most other people of my generation and general background, I’ve spent much of my life looking to the future. Sometimes I’ve looked ahead with worry and dread; other times, with hope and anticipation. Both states of mind can be problematic. When I’ve been consumed by worry, this has kept me from appreciating and enjoying where I am at that particular moment (see “Living in the Moment,” August 2004). But constant anticipation of better things has it's price as well - on occasion, it's had the effect of keeping me from dealing effectively with the difficult realities of the here and now.

But it’s very, very important to look forward. If we don’t worry, we can’t prepare ourselves for what the future may hold. And life without hope for a better future – well, that would be terribly devastating to contemplate. And so we tell ourselves stories of a new and different life to come, tales with happy endings, and these daydreams help us bear up under the hardships with which we must struggle today.

The period leading up to Timmi’s dramatic performance just before Pesach five years ago was one of the happiest in her life (I’ll write more about the performance itself in my next post). She was busy with rehearsals, with her costume, and with letting the world know about the upcoming production. At the same time, she was planning and preparing for all kinds of other activities. She was planning to start driving lessons. She was making plans for taking some of her matriculation exams at the end of that academic year, and even looking for a part-time job. She truly felt that she would soon return to at least a semblance of normal life, that there was a real chance that the worst was behind her.

When I look back now at that time of excitement and anticipation, I’m very grateful for Timmi’s capacity for hope. How much harder life would have been for her had she given in to despair, had she not told herself that her life, which had been so very difficult until then, could and would change for the better. I believe that her capacity for happiness was directly related to this ability to look to the future rather than dwell on the past. In a certain sense, it was this hope that kept her going – kept her alive.

But today I know how Timmi’s story ended. Now, living with that knowledge, when loss and sadness threaten to overwhelm me it’s much harder than it once was to tell myself a tale with a happy ending (see “Losing My Innocence,” two posts before this one). And so, because escape into a fantasy future is no longer an option, I now find myself trying to create an alternative reality in a different way – by breathing new life into my past.

In recent years, I’ve spent much of my spare time thinking about and trying to find people I knew before I met Don and came to live in Israel, and to re-establish relationships with them. In some cases I’ve succeeded. I’m now back in occasional touch with my first childhood friend, with whom I’d lost contact about 23 years before we found each other (actually she found me, but I’ve been very eager to keep the new relationship going). I recently found and have started corresponding with a friend whose family warmly and kindly “adopted” me when I was studying in Paris 31 years ago. I’ve even “reestablished” a relationship with a second cousin whom I’ve probably never met (neither of us is absolutely sure) – but he knew my mother and grandparents, so I think it counts. These relationships have added a new dimension to my present life, and I’m very grateful to have found them.

You will say, of course, that there’s nothing unusual about any of this. Most people my age often wonder “Whatever became of…?”, and with Google it’s now often possible to find out. I’m sure I'm not the first or last fifty-ish person to spend time searching the Net for clues as to what her old acquaintances are doing now. But I’ve gone beyond getting back in touch with distant family and close friends with whom I’d lost contact. Obsessed is probably too strong a word, but I’ve put more emotional resources than is probably healthy in trying to resurrect old relationships. In fact, I'm even trying to establish new relationships with people with whom I wasn’t ever close, but wished I were when I knew them.

And though I’ve discovered that most people are decidedly not interested in reopening past relationships, I persist even in my more hopeless attempts. I’ve even ruined things for myself on occasion by writing about my life in more detail than the average person wants to hear, too early in the correspondence. In one case, I wrote five times after the person on the other end stopped answering my letters - and I still find myself thinking of her today, a year later, and wondering whether to call her when I get to the States this summer.

I’ve asked myself many times why I feel such a strong need to do this. After all, I’m hardly lonely in my present life. I have a strong marriage, wonderful children, a close and vibrant religious community, and supportive and loving friends. I’m even in touch with the friends with whom I was closest in childhood, high school and college. The most sensible thing would be to gratefully concentrate wholly on the people who surround me here and now, and accept that both I and the people I knew way back when have moved on. Why can’t I just leave the past to memory?

I think the answer is a complex mix of many different possibilities, and I don’t doubt that all are true at the same time. One possible explanation – shared, I’m sure, by many immigrants and emigrants – is that there’s almost no one in Israel who knew me as I was before coming to live here. This makes me feel as if I’m split into two separate parts, and that I will not be whole until those parts become integrated. So by creating these new-old relationships, by bringing my past into my present and my present into my past, I may well be attempting to gather different aspects of myself into one consistent self.

Another possibility is that, having lost my capacity for pure optimism, I’m trying to return to a more innocent time, when I was able to look ahead to a clear and promising future. True, by the time I was a teenager I’d experienced some unusually harsh and traumatic events and situations. But at that time I felt that surely these things were behind me, because I myself had the power to determine my own bright future. Perhaps today I’m attempting to revive that optimistic young self, by treating the vast world of possibilities that were available to me then as open even now, so many years later.

But I believe there’s a third explanation - one that’s harder for me to admit to, because it’s so irrational. I think that I’ve been trying to change the past – in some magical way, to do it all over again. The logic goes like this: If when I was younger I didn’t manage to form friendships with the girls I most admired, perhaps now I’ll know how to succeed. And if I do, I will have “corrected” my life; it will be as if those parts had never happened, and some of the pain and sadness that I carry with me from those years will disappear. And then – so my magical thinking tells me – maybe I’ll then become the person I could have been, and have the life I might have had, had I never gone through that pain.

Why has this attempt at sorcery only started in the past few years? After all, decades went by without my even thinking of trying to “revive” relationships I never really had. I believe the answer goes far beyond the new possibilities opened by the Internet. I think that my need to “fix” my life, to build an alternate narrative for myself, only became urgent once Timmi was diagnosed with the illness that tortured, threatened and ultimately took her life. I could have gone on living with that childhood sadness that I’m trying to erase by seeking new friendships with old acquaintances – the normal and common pain of a girl who was lonelier than she wanted to be. But now I carry inside a kind of pain that can't just be lived with - the unnatural agony of a mother who lost her child to cancer. This agony threatens at times to overwhelm me, if I don't do something to make it disappear. But there's nothing I can do or say to myself rationally that can make it disappear. And so that part of me that still insists on believing in magic tries to do that something, following its own twisted logic by trying to fulfill today the dreams and fantasies of my former life. If I can only succeed in that, then perhaps I'll also be able to wake up from the nightmare of the past ten years to find my family whole, and Timmi peacefully asleep in her bed.

We human beings are amazingly complex and contradictory creatures. We need our past - without roots, we would virtually float off into space. And there's no question but that we need to have a vision for our future to hold on to in difficult times. But ultimately, life must be lived in the here and now. Yes, this really is my life; fantasizing about the life I wish I’d had won’t change that fact, nor will dreaming of the life I hope I’ll have in days to come. Only if I squarely face my present existence will I have any chance of shaping its reality.

And so I pray that God will help me integrate my past, present and future in a healthy and constructive way. I pray for the ability to look back at my past life with the wisdom I’ve gained by living it, and to anchor my friendships and relationships – even my new-old ones – in that wisdom. I pray for the courage once again to look forward to the future with hope, even in the knowledge that there can be no certainty that my hopes will be realized in this life. Most of all, I pray for the ability to live fully in the here and now, and to be fully present for those I love and who love me.

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