I used to read my blog posts to my mother. Now I seem to write them about her. I think of this as the year of the parents; a time where I process who they were and their role in shaping who I am. The year is certainly dominated by their absence, and in that absence they are still very present.
I previously wrote about the discovery of my late mother's folder titled Notes on Books Read. This is a slice of one band of time, from the late 90s to the early 2000s. I've attempted to organize them by topics. A bit of curating is required as I can't include them all.
One quote that I especially liked came from Wally Lamb's book -I Know This Much is True. Among the things he knows to be true is "that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things." Now that works well with the metaphor of apples I hope to use in my "wisdom" painting for the lab.
My mother's notes addressed the themes she struggled with in her life. I can hear her voice in them offering counsel. She was often fearful of the world, learned to face it and taught her children to do likewise. When I ran across her certificate from a long ago swimming class she took when I was a child, I couldn't bring myself to pitch it. I knew it represented her facing her fears and how important that was to her.
From Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones she addresses living with fear. I got so frightened sometimes: she admitted. "I know. Fear is only fear though and somehow you live without it. "No," he corrected her. "You live with it."
And you face those fears...From the poet Lucile Clifton "Any dog will keep chasing you if he knows you are afraid. The only remedy is to turn around and face the dog."
And from the anthology What We Know So Far: Wisdom Among Women by Beth Benatovich she quotes a further step in understanding the other side of fear (from Forged in Fire by Ai Ja Lee). "To be scared is normal, to be not scared is stupid. But fear makes you lose the moment. If we go with the fear, instead of against it, crossing that line into action we find an exhilarating new world."
She comes back to Wally Lamb who says "But what are our stories if not mirrors we hold up to our fears."
You live with fear, you face it and you move through it into action and to exhilaration. Ultimately your fears become stories, echoes that you share with others, a wisdom offering.
My mother was not a traditionally religious person, but she was certainly a spiritual and intellectually curious person. She used the study of religion to gain insights. I was surprised at how many Jewish sources were reflected in her notes, sources that I've only recently encountered through the lab, but apparently she discovered them long ago.
From the Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers she notes a sense of responsibility in life. "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it." (Avon 2:21)
Her excerpts indicate an orientation towards action and speaking up when necessary, but acting with thought.
From the Talmud she notes: Silence easily becomes acquiescence.
"What is more important asks the Talmud? What is essential? Thought or action? Study comes first, because study incites action."
And a belief that we need to live in this world, indeed to make it shine.
From the eloquent Abraham Joshua Heschel she includes this "The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject, but to surpass civilization."
And back to novels, but with a similar concept, from The Source by James Michener. "Life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to be life. And no religion defends so tenaciously the ordinary dignity of living. Judaism stressed neither an after-life or after punishment, nor heaven. What was worthy and good was here, on this day in Zefat. We seek God so earnestly, Elias reflected, not to find him, but to discover ourselves."
Knowing her own propensity to worry she records - "God doesn’t need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." (The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver)
Given that we are in this world, how do we choose to live our life?
"We endure what we have to in order to make the beautiful design of our lives. The world is a mirror. You reflect good into it and it reflects good back at you.The mind is a powerful tool. It can create your destiny for good or for evil, so we might as well train it to help us, not harm us." (Forged in Fire- Ai Ja Lee)
She adds Robert Frost's offering. "The only way out is through"
And in the same vein, "Just remember that life is made up of changes. We can't run away from it." (The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama)
"A brave man bows to circumstances as grass does before the wind "- (Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones)
Are you sensing a theme here?
She liked Lamb's words about connection to the past, both our personal past and the past that preceded us. She used to reflect on her connections to the past, wondering whether her practice of recording excerpts from books was hereditary as her father used to do that as well.
"It is all connected. Life is not a series of isolated ponds and puddles. Life is this river. It flows from the past to the present on its way to the future. ... Only in the most literal sense are we born on the day we leave our mother’s womb. In the larger sense we are born of the past, connected to its fluidity, but genetically and experientially."
And lest we forget that we are not the center of the universe...
"First came simple things. Spending my last waking moments each night considering what I’d done that day and why; breathing a thank-you to God every morning for the new day; reminding myself constantly and often to little avail, that I was not the center of the universe. And I tried, though this was most difficult, to listen to what my soul had to say." -(Turbulent Souls; A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family - Stephen J. Dubner)
"Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky." (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver)
My mother was born a teacher and eventually became one. When I read this quote from Evensong by Gail Godwin, I knew her reference was her experience teaching, a vocation that was a calling for her.
"Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you."
My mother thought about wisdom and sought it from many voices.
"Only by the fusion of science and the humanities can we hope to reach the wisdom appropriate to our day and generation.. The ultimate end of education is knowledge embedded in wisdom." (Rabi: Scientist and Citizen by John Rigden)
And as we near the end of life...
Eli Wiesel - "In short, I try not to die before I die."
"There was a timelessness here, a sense that death was no more than a progression of life." (Lake News by Barrbara Delinksy)
"Dazed, Ben sought some view of death that made leaving the world endurable. No matter how often he’d turned it over, no matter the years he’d passed with it, there was still no answer to the final riddle, or an answer lay beyond his reach. Always his search had led him nowhere, and the next day he was one day older, with no greater wisdom as a shield against death, no revelation to pit against its strength. And this was how a person aged. Suffering in astonishment the progress of the days." (East of the Mountains-David Guterson)
In her notes I found Psalm 90 on the fragility and temporal nature of life which ends with this quote: "So teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom".
My mother clearly succeeded in that.