There I sit, on your couch, for the first time. The couch is brown leather, and if I knew you for longer, I would probably gratefully sink into its cushions as body and leather would melt into one. I would hold my spine with confidence and a hint of amusement as we would share our lives and go deeper into our understandings of each other.
But today, the couch is new to me, and I am sitting awkwardly on it, perched like a bird without assurance that I can begin to nest, as I try to connect with you for the first time. The question comes, so simply and predictably, yet always catching me with surprise, highlighting the extent to which we are bitter strangers.
“So, when your children are at school, do you work?”
I respond, attempting to make a joke out of it: “I don’t get paid for my work.. yet…” and we both laugh quietly together, before I realize that I have not explained myself at all, and that it’s not really a joke, and that I need to continue. I reluctantly do, though I puff out my chest up in pride to remind myself that I’m proud of my decisions:
“What I mean is, I paint and work on a lot of different creative projects. Which I hope one day will bring money.”
And you will look at me for a moment, quizzically catching my eye, before you give me a small smile and say something about how nice or cute that is. I can’t help but wonder if you’re wondering if I’m some fabulously wealthy person that doesn’t have to work and can just saunter around and paint while her husband works and the rest of the world slaves away in New York City.
It’s an indulgence, right? I mean, if the rent is high and the funds are never enough, and yet I’m sending my youngest to a playgroup, could I justify using that time for something like art? Like, most of that time for art? Am I some absurdly selfish woman who hasn’t got her marbles together enough to plow through life and put a pedal to the medal?
Before kids, I used to work, I swear. I used to work like crazy. I used to breathe work and exhale accomplishments.
But when my oldest was nine months old, I attempted to get back into the work force. I really did, I promise. I landed a good, interesting job that required a lot of work, and my life went up in flames. My husband remembers that as “one of the worst times”. The job was only four hours a day. Four hours a day, that’s all, right? Except that by the time I came home, my daughter wanted attention and dinner needed preparation and after recovering from the day, I couldn’t find the time to create. So, after a brief stint, I quit.
A few months later, I tried a job that was only four hours a week. Only four hours a week, that’s all, right? Except that too, I couldn’t do. Life was so full of errands, and lists, and learning about mommyhood, and trying to build relationships, and trying to remain married, that taking four hours of my week still seemed like it was sucking away time from the things that nurtured me, like art. So I had to quit that, too.
Because I came to understand that I really only have three official jobs; being a person, being a wife, and being a mother. The rest of my earthly missions are really nice things to aspire to, but in those three, lives directly depend on me. Lives flourish or shrink because of the attention I choose to give to them. So if another job diminishes my ability to be a mother or a spouse or to be kind to myself, it needs to be thrown out with yesterday’s trash.
But being an artist is a tricky, time-consuming business. It requires daily workouts and prolonged moments of intense concentration and insight. I take my weekly art sessions as seriously as my Torah learning, with set times that must be observed at all costs. And an artist needs to be alone. If I don’t get my daily fix of alone time, my nerves randomly fire at inappropriate and inconvenient times, and my brain doesn’t process things correctly.
If I don’t get my daily shot of inspiration, my mind will go on an endless loop about all of the things I have yet to do, the unending to-do list that camps on the left side of my brain and taunts me whenever it finds boredom. But when I think of something interesting, and a blog post starts writing itself in my mind, or my body has had a cathartic painting session, massaging my pupils with blues, purples, and oranges of its choosing, I get in the flow, and it’s my gasoline for the day.
All of a sudden, I’m singing with my girls and I’m dancing around and organizing while my mind continues to work it’s art magic, forming the words into paragraphs and articles, noticing the naples yellow sun shine off the curtains, and without even trying, the place is organized and my girls are happy, and dinner is in the oven. So, you see, I first feed my inner artist, and then I feed my family. It is the only way I can live.
It’s been many years since I wailed to my husband, “Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I handle a job that only requires four hours a day?” and then, later, “What’s wrong with me that I can’t handle a job that only requires four hours a week?” We’ve, mercifully, accepted that I have certain needs, that caring for my own inner artist is a fairly time consuming job in and of itself. My inner artist needs daily watering, it needs to write daily pages of stream of consciousness, it needs to take itself out on dates, and it needs time to sit and paint and write and dream.
One creative mother I met said that she was told when she was becoming a mother to “wait twenty years, and then you will have time to paint.” But I don’t have twenty years to wait. My children and spouse could not endure my internal withering if I waited for two days without nourishing myself. My home would be a melting pot of emotional breakdowns and random spurts of irritable accusation.
We cannot begin the job of restitching ourselves as a society back, opening our eyes to our already united roots and brotherly love, unless we are whole. Our most important job, first and foremost, is to our own selves. And once we are whole and radiating, then we can branch out and really embrace each other.
Gd has pulled us through years of trauma; from burning one precious Temple to the ground and then another to pogroms and countless years of antisemitism. It hasn’t been easy. We have scars, psychologically and emotionally, from our tumultuous centuries of existence. We have become neurotic and cold and confused. And as our days become physically easier with the advent of technology, our personal work becomes even more clear. Now is the time to heal the scars of centuries and of recent times, that have pulled us apart and away from each other. Now is the time to nurture ourselves.
Every time I take some time to nurture myself so I can paint, I think of it as my little way of rectifying Hitler’s attempts to exterminate our souls . The psychological warfare he utilized was deep and excruciating, and the effects of it I believe are felt for generations. My grandmother was 82 pounds when she was liberated from Auschwitz. She walked out of that nightmare and got married and had a baby the next year. I think of her and the death marches in the snow when I am pushing my daughter’s stroller on Eastern Parkway, bundled in my winter down in January. I don’t know how she did it.
As the Three Weeks reminds us every year, the war is not over yet. I continue to fight it everyday as I call upon my inner demons and demand them to be silenced. As I address them and laugh at them, exposing them to the light and most importantly of all, as I nurture myself. Tend to myself. Remind myself that though Hitler thought we were nothing and despicable and evil, we are beautiful and we are holy and we are exalted.
So I look back at the you as I sit perched like an awkward bird about to take flight on your potentially comfortable couch. You who at first glance seems to not understand me, a mother of two, who puts her children into playgroup so she can paint, as the bills pile up around her. One day, sure, I hope to make money off of my art. But until then, I know something you might understand one day, that really, I am doing the most important job in the world, even though it doesn’t pay me yet. I’m nurturing myself, and then I’m nurturing my family, and together, we’re trying to nurture the world.
And through these efforts, of self- nurture and education, I believe we will stitch ourselves back together and regain the 20/20 eyesight we once had all those years ago to see that yes, we are still at Sinai and we are all, utterly and joyfully connected.