Recently a friend wrote about how he deals with mental illness—working on it daily, cultivating sanity and creativity, getting stronger and more stable—and said: I get to recover every day.
In a way, I do too. I don’t know about mental illness, never received that diagnosis and don’t have enough training in the field. So what am I recovering from?
There was a period of time 20 years ago when Bernie, in starting a talk to big groups, would say: Hello, My name is Bernie. I am an addict. I am addicted to my self. I have always been an addict and will always be an addict.
It got a laugh.
But this is the big one, the addiction to the story and identity of my self, lovingly made up over the years, layer over cumulative layer. While in Israel I tended to drink lots of coffee with family members and friends (I arrived home late last night), and watched the stories we tell about ourselves change from visit to visit.
My self feels like a big house always in construction. I furnish one room lovingly, then decide this isn’t quite right and start furnishing another, then add another. I can never quite get that self right, always futzing with it: a little addition here (That book helped me so much!), subtract the patio (I guess the feedback she gave was okay but it could have been a little softer), another little tchotchke (Remember when . . .), a refinement on the tchotchke (It wasn’t like that at all!), a refinement on the refinement (I can’t swear to it, but still . . .).
I feel like a car accumulating bumper stickers:
INDEPENDENT, STRONG WOMAN AT WHEEL.
DITTO PLUS EMPATHY.
CAREGIVING IS FOR THE BIRDS.
WOMAN LEARNING THAT CAREGIVING IS NOT SO BAD.
THIS DRIVER LOVES TO LAUGH.
DRIVER FULL OF DOUBT.
ALSO FULL OF DETERMINATION.
My mother’s self is full of bumper stickers as well:
THIS WOMAN HAS GREAT CHILDREN.
DID SHE EVER MARRY THE WRONG MAN!
THIS WOMAN STRUGGLED!
DID SHE EVER MAKE WRONG DECISIONS!
THIS WOMAN BELIEVES IN BEING JEWISH.
BUT SHE DOESN’T BELIEVE IN GOD.
Since I’m younger, it’s easy for me to add more bumper stickers about the woman driving the car. But my mother is towards the end of her life, hasn’t driven in quite a while, and her mind fogs up so it’s hard for her to design new bumper stickers. Instead she mulls over the Big Ones, crying, exclaiming in her sleep, a perpetual grimace of pain ravaging her once beautiful face.
I’d like to tell her not to read bumper stickers anymore. Despairing of that, I try to remind her of happy bumper stickers, but that hasn’t gone very far for she seems to always get drawn to the ones that talk of anger, insecurity, and fear.
I don’t want her to approach the end of her life like that.
I don’t want to approach the end of my life like that.
Beauty helps. I went to the Via Dolorosa to visit Jerusalem Pottery, the oldest—and many say best—Armenian pottery in Jerusalem. There I met the owner, Hagop Karakashian, tall, handsome, and very courteous in the gracious Middle Eastern way. He told me that his grandfather, a highly respected Armenian potter, fled Turkey and came to Jerusalem in the early 1920s, and the family has made pottery in Jerusalem ever since. Check them out and look at the Armenian, Persian, and Turkish motifs in their gorgeous tiles, with the bluest blues, the deepest turquoises and Mesopotamian reds that I have seen. In the end he invited my sister and me upstairs to see the studio where they paint the pottery by hand.
You continue a tradition over 100 years old, I said to him. Did you feel it restrained you in some way?
He nodded. I did in the beginning. But then I realized that the tiles and crockery I design go everywhere. We get photos of our tiles and ceramics in kitchens around the world, the plates are used for fruit on so many tables. My art goes everywhere. He paused. It’s living and working here, in this city, that is so difficult. The religions fight all the time.
From the outside Jerusalem Pottery seems small, the entrance so nondescript you can easily miss it. You’ll find it across from the eighth Station of the Cross, someone told us, where Jesus met the three women of Jerusalem. For me, on this visit, it was more important than the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
And I remembered something my brother told me. Once, when he hosted my mother at a Sabbath dinner, his children asked her about the synagogue she had been religiously attending for at least 25 years. Did she feel close to God there? She shook her head. There’s no God there, she said, they just have some great songs.