I never imagined that I would live in The City That Care Forgot. I think I sooner imagined Australia than the Deep South. But I found myself arrived here, weaving my way through boxes in a house twice as big as the one we inhabited in College Town, and I kept thinking to myself, "How did we get here?" How is it that our neighborhood of doctoral students has been replaced with dentists, lawyers and retirees? How is it that I went from sending my husband off in jeans and a backpack to ride the bus to school, and now he kisses me goodbye in the morning looking so refined as he heads off to work in the tallest building in the state?
How did I go from a drought-plighted climate to a balmy, semi-tropical paradise?
I felt disoriented (and, as a side-note, it took several days before I even thought to use the second bathroom, I'm so used to sharing one), and questioned if this was really what I wanted my life to look like.
Then came...The Three Weeks. This period in the summer between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av on the biblical calendar is traditionally structured as a time of mourning for the loss of the Temple - and by extension, the many tragedies that have befallen Israel through the ages. Every year, I find myself shying away from these days, dreading their arrival, but once they are here, I plunge myself in and remember that "it is better to be in the house of mourning than the house of feasting for that is the end of all men and the living will lay it to heart". It was difficult to fully enter the somber spirit this year. I felt so full of gratitude so many of the wonderful changes in my world. I didn't want to be disturbed by thoughts of anyone's tragic past.
I was fortunate to get my hands on a gem of a book, filled with meditations for the Three Weeks. Her words spoke directly to my heart:
We live in a period that is enormously invested in happiness. Just type "books on happiness" into Amazon and see what you come up with (by my count, it's close to 17,000). We guard our happiness closely, and do not want to mar it with sad thoughts. We fail to view suffering as a natural part of human life - living in such relative comfort as we do, suffering always takes us by surprise, as if it were an injustice. And as it is an injustice, we look for someone to blame. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Lovingkindness, points out that
we feel obliged to defend our happiness because it seems so fragile, unstable. As though our happiness needed constant protection, we deny the very possibility of suffering; we cut ourselves off from facing it in ourselves and in others because we fear that it will undermine or destroy our good fortune.
Suffering humanizes us. Ignoring suffering dehumanizes us. I don't want to ruin my good mood by looking at that homeless person, so I turn away - and with that turning, I let go of my social responsibility to him. Attunement to suffering makes us more compassionate. It also helps us appreciate where we come from and all that it took to get us to where we are. We have to remind ourselves that we don't diminish our happiness when we spend a day or a few weeks meditating on the tragedies of history from which we emerged. We become more grateful, holding on tightly to our blessed lives because we can.
I think of tragedy like a disease. It's catchy. Talking about it is like breathing in infection microbes. Pretending it doesn't exist is the best form of immunity. But Erica Brown's words gave me permission to see suffering in a different way - to recognize it as "a natural part of life" and accept my share of it...and to feel grateful for those periods in my life when G-d gives reprieve.
Then we received a phone call. One of my husband's family friends had gone over the side of the boat on a family outing on the lake and they could not find him. My heart thudded in my chest and over the next several days - waiting anxiously for news that they had found him, brokenhearted for a distraught family who had lost a very dear son - I kept returning to the thought, It only takes a moment and everything changes forever.
Erica Brown points out that when the barren Hannah was finally given a son, her song of thanks in the book of Samuel is a poem of the shifts of fortune. Erica Brown comments, "From a theological view, Hannah's observations about life may be more powerful than gratitude. She declares that life as we know it can change in an instant, as hers did. This provides more than thanks - it offers hope. It also forces humility on those who have been given much."
I whispered to the Engineer as we lay in bed that night, "Do you ever think about the fact that one of us is most likely going to have to say goodbye the other at some point?"
He whispered back, joking, "Maybe we should just divorce now. Maybe that would be less painful than losing someone suddenly and not getting to say goodbye."
I elbowed him and we were quiet for a minute. "I know we can't keep each other forever, but I'm so grateful that I've been given so many amazing days with you."
"Me, too. No regrets."
It dawned on me then why I was so ambivalent about all the wonderful changes in our lives over the past few weeks. What goes up, must come down. Being raised to the heights of happiness frightened me because I had a wide open view of how far I could fall. I curled in closer to my husband and thought about the shadows and sunshine in my life so far and remembered that both are part of the human experience, that while I was grieving for another suffering, I could simultaneously be grateful for my family's well-being. And that when the circle turns and it is my turn for hard times I have hope on my side: the circle will turn again.