The school of leavings

September 4, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I played music for a bat mitzvah service this morning, a very sweet occasion.  At the very end, right before the closing song, a passage written by Albert Einstein in 1954 was read:

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space.  We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.  A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.  We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

An optical delusion of consciousness.  What a powerful and apt term!  I sat through the whole service teary-eyed and choked up – rites of passage always do that to me anyway, no doubt enhanced today by the freshness of Chloe’s leaving – and those words showed up as a lifeline, a rope to grab hold of to lead me out of my soggy puddle.  What is my life – your life, anybody’s life – but a meandering path of leavings, and of moving forward even when we want to hold on?

The day Dan and I began to try to conceive, I was thunderstruck by the realization that we had stepped onto the escalator of letting go.  Could we control whether or not we hit the jackpot (so to speak) this ovulatory cycle?  Never.  We had no say over any of it, speed nor date of conception, the nature of the pregnancy, the first miscarriage, the grieving process, how many months more of trying for the next, the nature of the next pregnancy… Obviously, I could go on for years with this list.  And once Chloe was born, and later Rachel, I had no control over the next set of variables.  Each step of developmental progress was another departure – from my body, from our arms and laps, from babyhood and soft sweet cheeks and wide open eyes and clinging, eager hands and ramrod posture and adorable outfits to everything that comes with every single stage of growing up.  I had pictured parenthood as the act of welcoming someone into the world.  What a surprise to learn I had it backwards!  Our children were welcoming us to a whole new curriculum of lessons to be learned.

I know I have not been the best of students in that school, though neither have I been the worst.  When I could not go by my own experience, I looked for others who could teach me.  I learned about being a gentle parent from three unlikely couples, namely, the parents of Frances and Gloria, in all the Priscilla Mary Warner children’s books; of Arthur and D. W., in the PBS series inspired by author Marc Brown; and of Ramona in Beverly Cleary’s classics.  They were great models for me in the area of love, patience, maturity, and understanding.  But their stories show little to nothing of the slow parade of good-byes that lie ahead.  Like Dorothy in the land of Oz, I had to find them for myself.

They did not come on the expected days, like the first morning of kindergarten or even the first time Chloe drove Rachel to their dance school and Dan and I were left waving on the porch, the air oddly sucked out of our lungs.  I felt it more when Chloe would come home from a play date a little farther away from my understanding, a new cockiness in her voice.  Or when Rachel suddenly didn’t need a good-night kiss and hug anymore.  Then who am I?  What am I now?

If I am first and foremost the one who brought them into the world and sustained them with the milk my body produced for them, I stand alone and separate, as Einstein observed.  But if I remember that I too navigated my path away from my mother and father into the world that was awaiting me, they join me as two more children in a long line, and we join all families.  All mothers and fathers were once children, following the drive to leave their parents, forever moving forward.  I can now turn with compassion toward my own parents, who must have grieved my moving out at age 19, though I didn’t notice at the time.  It was not my job to notice them!  I was joining the world – for myself, I thought at the time.  Now I know better.  The baby bird leaves the nest and flies off, to grow big enough to build another.  It is the way of the universe.  I will never know whether the mother and father bird shed tiny tears in their abandoned circle of twigs, but I know it is the same set of impulses, even if I use words to try to understand it all, and they do not ponder but only act. 

I am thankful to be swept up in the fast and fierce winds that meet my face as I hurtle helplessly forward in time.  It is comforting to me to be part of the very nature of things.  That in itself frees me (for the moment) from the prison of separateness and personal agenda.  And by the way, Einstein wrote that magnificent paragraph the year I was born.

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