To a mama friend who is currently having a rough time:
I’ve never been a fan of the, “We’re only given what we can handle,” line. Extra rough things happen only to people who are better equipped to deal with them? I just don’t believe that.
But I do believe the opposite of that line. It is precisely through dealing with hard things, that we become strong. And that is exactly what you are doing.
I thought of you when I read this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. Moses is giving a dramatic speech as he prepares to die, and the portion ends with these words:
I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.
“Life and death, blessing and curse.” For opposites, they sure are hard to separate. After all, doesn’t every new life create a death? And while “curse” is a pretty strong word, just as every challenge leads to hidden blessings, every blessing contains its own challenges.
We know this intimately, you and I and all the other parents out there, along with the soon-to-be parents, and the would-be parents. After all, what greater blessing is there than having a child? And what greater challenge is there?
I used to think this passage from Nitzavim was saying there are two separate paths–one of life and blessing, one of death and curse–and we should choose the first. But now I think it’s more complicated. I think life and death, blessing and curse, are one single, paradoxical, interwoven path. A Mobius strip, like marriage, or motherhood.
Because life contains death. Blessing contains challenge. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her beautiful book, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think.”
Moses’ own mother would understand this. When he was a baby, she placed him in a basket and sent him floating away to save his life. Now he’s 120 years old and about to die himself. He saw how impossible it is to disentangle life and death, blessing and curse. He saw how liberation came through plagues, how freedom led to thirst. He saw God’s magnificent presence in the Torah, black fire on white fire, but he also saw it burn so brightly it killed his nephews. And at the end of his life, this is the advice Moses gives us: choose life.
When Sylvie was 4 months old, we moved across the country to the child-rearing paradise of Portland, Oregon. My husband had lived there when we met; he owned a house with a yard and had rented it out when he moved to Brooklyn to be with me.
Was this the path of choosing life? Yes, I believe it was. We simply could no longer afford to live as artists in Brooklyn. We couldn’t spend half an hour looking for parking after driving home from a late night performance. We couldn’t live three hours away from all of Sylvie’s grandparents without being able to offer a guest room (or at least a nearby hotel). Was moving away from my family and friends with a young child the hardest, loneliest thing I have ever done? Yes.
The grief I experienced for the year after that move shocked me. But looking back, it was understandable, maybe inevitable. I had to mourn the death of my old, pre-motherhood life which I loved and had to let go of forever, to make a new life as a mother and wife. Life and death, blessing and challenge, all rolled up in one complicated, confusing, glorious, demanding, unpredictable path.
Later in “The Art of Getting Lost,” Rebecca Solnit describes, “the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle.”
My butterfly mama, I wish I could make it easier for you. I wish we didn’t have to disintegrate to be reborn. But I also know that you’re going to be just fine. You’re going to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one bowl of Cheerios, one playdate, one bath at a time. You are already strong. You are choosing life.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.