When I was a kid and didn’t know what the job of being a human was, I was always on the look-out for clues. I thought the job of a kid was four-fold — to find friends, to do what we were told, to play, and stay out of the way of adults. As for adults, it seemed like their job was to work, like worker bees. And to boss kids around. Tell us we were good, tell us we were bad. Feed us and house us. Tell us we were to be seen and not heard, and that if we cried they’d give us something to cry about. It would have helped if I’d ever had one adult mentor; I didn’t. But I did have a Mom, and messed up and merged as our relationship was, she was also loving, hard-working, and often kind. It was a lot of complexity and paradox to hold, but I didn’t know I was holding it til a lot later.
I grew up in a neighborhood straight out of Dick and Jane, the book used in school to teach us to read. Look, Jane, Look. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Only there was a Jewish girl (me) in our real life neighborhood, and no Jewish girl anywhere in Dick and Jane. Poor whites lived south of McDowell, on the edge of Dick and Jane. They could have been IN Dick and Jane, but they couldn’t afford it. Mexicans lived further west, Blacks further south. Native Americans somewhere on reservations, wherever that was. None of them could ever be in Dick and Jane. Not in America. Not in the 1950s. What books did they use to learn to read? This was what the great nation of America had mapped out. Ordained.
The adults had deemed it so. My father said we weren’t like the South. He explained while the South had Jim Crow, in Arizona we had a lesser version, what he called “de facto segregation”. He was against discrimination he said but didn’t offer up any insights or solutions. I didn’t understand anything.
At 18 I felt my job was to overthrow US imperialism and put in its place something more human-friendly. Other people thought in terms of economics, politics, strategy, and tactics. I thought about people. I read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and Emma Goldman, but couldn’t translate their words into something i could say to convince anyone of anything.
I wandered in the wilderness. I worked, married, had a child, divorced. I might have seemed ok; I wasn’t.
I tired easily of being adult. It looked to me like everyone knew what they were supposed to do, who they were. I didn’t know how completely people had learned to cover up their despair and uncertainty. I didn’t know how to see beneath masks. Or even my own.
I thought being a human was only difficult for some of us, and in ways so different that we were doomed to suffer alone. Jews and women and Blacks and Mexicans and Native Americans and LGBTQ — all of us doomed somehow to sorting out our own identities in our own allotted terrains.
By 40 I was downright saddened if not depressed and buddhism seemed an option. The Buddha “got” that suffering was central to the human experience and there was no God to indict, save, or punish us for sins which after all were only “mistakes”. Ram Dass appeared in my life with Be here now and awe and kindness. I borrowed his hindu-buddhist mix and it worked fabulously-well, briefly. Then other kinds of buddhism, mostly the jewish men kind… Jack and Joseph and Jon and Stephen, a couple of jewish women Sylvia and Sharon… (what is all this alliteration of names?)
I loved the highly touted but rarely practiced Beginners Mind. I still felt inadequate, but if I wanted to I could call myself a buddhist. It didn’t require any belief system (or so I thought). What being a buddhist meant was different for different people, and there was some idea about not being attached to the concept but people were anyway, attached, that is, to the identity of it, what it promised, kind of like what America promised, a partial reality, because how can democracy be practiced if in the first twenty years of life it is drummed (and sometimes beaten) into you that children are to be seen and not heard? Where do those unpracticed voices go? Quiet, I tell you, or angry.
By accident of conversation my beloved Jeff (of blessed memory) mentioned a book he’d read about hiking the pacific crest trail by this writer I’d never heard of… Cheryl Strayed… and oh yes, she had another book I might like to read, “tiny, beautiful things”. So I put my name on the library’s waiting list and after a few months — I wasn’t in any hurry, I didn’t know it would be good to be — I got one book and then the other.
By now I was already into my sixties and had had my heartbreaking break up with my buddhist teacher of 18 years, which hurtled me into the kind of beginner’s mind no one — buddhist or not — wants to feel, which unleashed all at once 60 years of not-knowing, who-the-fuck-am-I? slam bam in my face and brain. Was I still expected to be seen and not heard? If I cried, would I be given something to cry about? Apparently. Was this some kind of zen koan? Or was it just my own internal script set on re-re-re-play? Like Groundhog Day all over again and again.
In my writing class at city college, I read and discuss with my class every essay that each of us writes. The class is called creative non-fiction. It’s not called memoir. It’s not called who the fuck am I? But invariably, every single person wrote their very own unique — Polish, Brazilian, Filipino, Navajo, Cambodian, African American, Colombian, East Indian, immigrant or one or two generations-removed-from-immigrant, and a handful of disparate in age-style-demeanor white Americans— who-the-fuck-am-I?-story. Brilliantly. Masks off. And we all listened in awe and the weary-and-worn-and-poorly-cared-for classroom became sacred space.
And I am filling my mind with other writers, who are willing and practiced at taking their masks off and there are a lot of them, and the one I want to tell you about today is this one. Ross Gay. I don’t know how I found him. I remember hearing him, his voice, talking (but where? when?) talking about searching for delight in daily experiences the way I search for delight through my camera lens. As a practice.
I’m sorry if my writing is too long and seems too sad. I’m not the sad person I was, though I want to honor her. The tendency to sadness is still there, perhaps only from too many re-plays of the childhood script.
I am on to new scripts. I think my life-long search is starting to pay off. I am lucky to have lived long enough. No one would call me an early bloomer. It doesn’t matter. I can cradle a lot of sorrow in this mind without getting sucked in to overwhelming sadness and that’s a good thing. In this present moment of my life, there is enough delight that I no longer feel sorry for myself. Ross Gay’s book is called The Book of Delights. And, without omitting an iota of true sorrow, it really really is a delight. I’ll quote Lidia Yuknavitch on this: “There is no other book on the planet I’d rather read right now, no other writing that can make me believe in the future — and us — again.”