As I spread the buttercream frosting from the belly of the Boheme cake to its outermost edge, a habitual worry cut the silence between my mother and I who, exhausted from the day's Passover preparations, leaned against the marble kitchen counter. I asked her: “Do you think I’m going to do something meaningful with my life?” My mom, for whom existential questioning was a luxury for a day with a shorter to-do list, paused to tend to my mid-twenties angst: “Martha, think of what you have done, not what you haven’t.” The advice was familiar. Only, this time, I didn’t swat it away in a martyrdom denial of motherly comfort. Her invitation to lay my eyes upon the concrete accomplishments of yesterday, rather than fixate on the imaginary landscape of tomorrow sounded a sensible suggestion. It was a calm commandment to make a concrete and simple change, like an order by the mind to the hand to switch gears in a moving car. The logic was simple, and the consequences of disobeying it seemed more serious than I'd ever stopped to consider.
This January, the universe asked me to be a historian. I was to teach U.S. History and Ancient Civilizations in a high school classroom. At first I felt a trespasser, an unlicensed park-ranger in a foreign wilderness. I realize now that this feeling of being a stranger before my own nation’s history was culturally supported. The “already” of the past is constantly dismissed by the “not yets” of the future. Having and being enough is a continent that's been forced into our rear view over centuries of consumerist thinking, decentralized by by micro and macro tectonic cultural shifts. Many voices on social media encourage us to forget what we already are and give ourselves over to the chase of something, someone, bigger, better. The estrangement I initially felt from the academic project of learning and teaching History, I realize now, was a manifestation of how I had incrementally devalued and distanced myself from the feats of my own past.
Passover is about celebrating the liberation of Jews thousands of years ago. But it’s also about liberating ourselves from this easy place of forgetfulness. Even if you don’t share the Jewish history of escape from Egypt, the holiday culturally rehearses the personal importance of being connected to where you come from, to remembering the distance you've already covered.
My mother's call to action that afternoon reminded me that the list of my to-dos, to-proves, and to-be’s doesn't need to exceed the list of who I already am. Futuristic worrying, while it may feel like a place of victimhood, is a state of mind we actively subscribe to. When discussing the orchestra of actions and ideas in the world that inevitably shape our beliefs about ourself and the world, Rebecca Solnit says that "With practice, you can pause the conversation, in your head and around you. . ." (The Faraway Nearby, 191). Everything we believe about ourselves is shaped and mediated by the "conversations" being held around us. Fear and lack may be the narrative we are surrounded by--online, in our social worlds, on the news. But to be surrounded isn't synonymous with absorbing and incorporating. With practice, I believe you can choose which voices to heed. Eventually, I know I can silence the stories of fear and self-criticism being spun, explicitly and mutely, and attune myself instead to gratitude for what is, self-appreciation for who I've become. These more empowering strands in the conversation present themselves when I pause the planning and anticipating and thank myself, and others, for what is, what has already been.
But high holidays and wise parents can't do this for us. We must learn to give ourselves the permission to incorporate the ground we’ve covered into the ground on which we stand. So try it out. Even if you're just pretending at first. What is something you're proud of? What have you done--today, this week, this year, in the last five years-- that helped align you, incrementally or monumentally with what you value most in life? My goal this Spring is to help build for myself, for my students, and for my friends, this multilayered-awareness, where our past (full of proud moments and growing pains) supports our present, and confidently gives rise to the next step.
Maybe the future doesn't need to feel like a scary leap into the unknown (although sometimes it will). Maybe it's simply the next layer we get to build atop an already rich history of successes and lessons learned. Our appreciation (and awareness) of these layers--here is where I succumb to the sweet temptation of readily available metaphors-- is the frosting that we get to spread, thick, over the surface area of our story, so that the architectural, stressful project of constructing our lives, can also be a lifetime of sweet enjoyment and finger-licking presence.