After so many trips to intensive care, dashed plans and other disappointments, the future felt too full of uncertainty to sufficiently map out, and worrying just undermined moments that were calm. I began to focus, in a way I never had before, on this evening’s light, the feel of the sand today, the walk to the pier, the taste of the afternoon’s ice cream.
Not that I didn’t attempt to orchestrate experiences. I still dreamed big: dragging us all to Maine on a moment’s notice, knowing that seeing our friends — and the expanse of the sea — would revive us, insisting we attend a cousin’s wedding in the Berkshires, creating elaborate dinners al fresco.
Hyper presentness can have its drawbacks. I find it hard to plan more than a week in advance. I fear lost moments to an unreasonable degree; I can summon panic by missing the girls’ bedtime, knowing that a day has passed and I won’t get it back.
But being insistently present means that each time Orli and I fight — and we still fight; she’s 13, after all — I cannot hold the anger. I have asked her sister, who turned 9 this summer, to try to do the same. Sometimes it even works. And so I lie there each night chatting with Orli and Hana; sometimes about something important, often not. But before I let myself worry about work or dishes or even future travel, I try to just be. Just be here, I tell myself, like a self-help app, on repeat.
This time of year is good for that.
Of the many, many hours of prayers offered during the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy (the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement) perhaps the most resonant text of all is the Unetaneh Tokef. In it Jews ask how each of us will receive God’s judgment this year, who will be allowed to see another year at all, and what we can do to alter our fate. The secular world knows this poem from Leonard Cohen’s interpretation, “Who by Fire.”
As a child, I tuned out the more awful potentials of the prayer’s plaintive cry — and there are many, and they are terrible, assigning an agency to God I find uncomfortable at best. Instead I was drawn to the sentences that enjoy less notoriety than the others: “Who shall be at rest and who shall wander,” the poem asks. In Hebrew, that sentence is a play on words, a single letter altering the meaning from “rest” (yanuach) to “wander” (yanuah). It goes on: “Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? Who will be calm and who will be tormented?” To be forced to wander another week, another month, another year is physical and also spiritual, literal and also emotional. In almost three years of cancer and pandemic, I have wondered how my family can find rest as we wander. It has been, and continues to be, I think, in these small in-between moments, in the noticing.