During my time in Maryland with Alisa Glassman and family, I didn’t call my mother. There’s a 7-hour difference between the two of us and by the time I remembered each day it would be too late. But yesterday, driving up the long New Jersey Turnpike north, I got her on the phone. For some reason she was breathing hard, even panting, but denied it when I asked her about it. She wanted to get off the phone and said: “Chavale, whatever happens, don’t give up faith in the truth.”
“What truth is that, mom?” I asked.
“You know, I know. Just don’t give up faith in that.” And then she added: “I have to go.”
“Don’t go yet, mom.”
“I’ll call back, okay?”
She never does. She seemed to hang up the phone, but didn’t really because I could hear her caregiver, Saint Swapna, saying: “Speak, Ima, speak! Why don’t you speak?” Swapna, who’s Indian, calls my mother by the Hebrew word for mother, which never fails to touch me.
And I heard my mother say back: “Because I have nothing to say.” And sure enough, she hung up the phone.
“Don’t give up faith in the truth,” though she couldn’t say much about what that truth is. I remember plenty of years when she knew exactly what that truth was. It was her truth, the truth of being an orthodox Jewish woman (who secretly had lost her faith in God after the Holocaust), who believed that nothing was more important than family and community (even as she constantly wished she’d been born years later when women were freer to pursue other careers).
I was a rebel practically from birth (a Sagittarius, after all!), but encountering that truth was like running into a brick wall. I respect the truths of different peoples and sects, but in my experience, the more fundamentalist people are, the more certain they are that they have the truth. Triumphalism, is how the Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, referred to it. They may call themselves anything they want, may say that they believe in live and let live, but scratch a little under the surface and I often found there self-righteousness and certainty, neither of which is hospitable to people who don’t believe as they do.
But now she can’t define truth anymore. She knows it’s there, knows one has to have faith, but she can’t say any more about it, and when I try to press her she hangs up the phone: “I have nothing to say.”
I often feel like I have nothing to say, especially before I give a talk or teach. I pause to see what thoughts come up, impressions, ideas, and instead: I have nothing to say. My mind used to work like a factory overtime, with plenty of things to try out, koans, stories, anything at all, but it seems to have quieted down.
We had a big storm earlier this afternoon. The rain pounded loud and hard but I didn’t close any windows, I wanted to hear what it said.
I grew up thinking that my social value lay in my silence and ability to listen. Within my family I learned to be quiet. Socially I was very clumsy, and soon found out that people didn’t mind me around so long as I listened. I became a listener, and my only role in social gatherings.
Later on, I was often surprised by how some people talked on and on about themselves, their work, their families, anything at all, and the question of Who cares? never seemed to come up for them. They assumed that everybody cared, not a doubt in their minds. I’d have dates with men who talked and talked about themselves, and at the end were sure that I wanted nothing more than to have another opportunity to sit silently and listen to every detail of their lives. Even if they asked me a question about myself, it was obvious they could hardly wait to turn the conversation back to themselves.
One result was that in social situations (as opposed to work), I still tend to be shy. If anything, I need to be encouraged to speak about myself, need to be given the gift of some silence so that I could find the words to express myself.
The musician and composer Ben Folds wrote: “It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.” He wrote that about the artistic voice and added: “It’s something you feel in the dark.”
But that’s not just true about the artistic voice, it’s true about my truth, and maybe your truth, too. And at least for a moment, my mother’s truth that moment, when she’d run out of familiar words and stories, run out of lessons and polemics and even Jewish phrases, and all she could finally say was: “You know, I know, just don’t give up faith in that.”
And when pressed later she said: “I have nothing to say,” and hung up.
In her late age (and dementia), she’s become a Zen master.
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