One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. Willa Cather
I went down to New York City yesterday to meet my niece, who was visiting New York for a few days. Like her three siblings, she lives outside of Jerusalem, across the Green Line, in what is still the West Bank, and there once was a time when I wouldn’t go to visit them. That changed because they were my family and I loved them.
We talked for a long time in a terrific Indian restaurant on Lexington Ave., eating chapatis and drinking lassis, I listening with great attention as she described to me how different our family—my two siblings and I—had seemed to them. Each in his/her own way rejected the conventional religious life and searched for something different. I hadn’t thought of us as being particularly adventurous, I knew so many others who’d done way more exploration than I did, but I could see how to others, ensconced in a religious, stable middle-class life, we looked weird.
How do you see yourself? What mirror do you use?
I thought of the smudged hand-mirror I use to help me put my contact lens into my eyes every morning. Buddhism has a lot of positive things to say about “mirror-like wisdom.” What mirror are they talking about? I don’t know too many mirrors that don’t carry blemishes from past mornings, mirrors you exhale on or those that catch a drop of water. Washing them leaves its own stains, or shades of cleanliness. Even the acts of cleaning and purifying have karma.
It was interesting to hear how we were seen even as I was aware that the mirror through which I see myself is just as smudged, only differently.
Cather is right, so many of us want relationships. We want to belong to someone or something bigger than us, but may be terrified of losing our individuality at the same time.
What does it mean, to belong to a happy family or be part of a happy couple? People used to send me photos of Bernie and me. I’d look at them, see two happy people, and ask myself: At that time, at that place, were we happy? The photo above shows us walking to the meditation hall at Felsentor in Switzerland. Was I talking to him about what we were going to do? Was I annoyed that he never liked to prepare, while I liked to plan? What was really going on? And how do our memories reinforce a story that someone has of us: that we helped each other, that we were happy together?
I don’t think that either of us cared much about pretending, if only because worrying about what others thought seemed an added, superficial burden we had no desire to carry. Still, that happy couple, like so many happy couples, contained a multitude of different relations, and at times it seemed a struggle to hold on to one’s self, to one’s soul.
But that struggle had been there for me from the get-go, practically from when I was born and wanted a different life from the “happy family” we all pretended to be. Getting older gives me the opportunity to be grateful for what I received even as I drew away, and reflect on the price I had paid, such as living so far away from family that I love to this very day.
Even as I loved Bernie, there were times I had to draw away to reclaim something of my own, and much as I miss him now, I don’t regret them. Each of us clung passionately, sometimes blindly, to our own self. The photo above notwithstanding, there was always some distance there, always three of us in that relationship: he, me, and space.
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