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On showing up
For our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, five (!!) years ago now, my sister and I put together a book of photos, stories, letters, poems and short missives from family and friends. The book cast a wide net and included hilarious, rambling stories from their twenties in New York, poems from brothers, photographs of them in Paris and London in the 1970s, adorable notes from grandkids. The first photos were dated from the early 1940s and there were shots of my baby at two days old in 2013.
At a loss for what to write ourselves, my sister came up with the brilliant idea to end the book with a list of all the things Mom and Dad have taught us: salad comes after dinner, and one must always have salad; there is only one way to cut brie; have dinner together every night [ed note: clearly we had/have snobbish food etiquette — blame it on their years in Paris]; take your kids to the ballet, the theatre, the symphony; read everything (but don't buy hardbacks) [ed note: I don’t adhere to this one]; walk wherever you can; there's always time for swimming (Mom taught us this). Learn to read music (Dad taught us this).
One theme that came up in entry after entry was my parents’ capacity to be there for other people. So many letters circled the same theme: you’ve provided a home for us, a gathering place, wonderful advice. We’ve always counted on you. Among the smaller lessons my sister and I listed were bigger ones, too: Be there for your friends. Call. Write. Show up.
My parents are not the most social people — my sister and I, at least pre-Covid, were more likely to throw impromptu dinner parties or welcome whomever into our homes for cake, cocktails, a last-minute Sunday-night dinner — but they did teach us, and continue to teach us about showing up for people, both in the ways they do it for us (literally showing up, suitcases in hand, when we need them; or just by picking up the phone when we call and letting us ramble), and in the ways they insist — overtly and subtly — we do it for others. I remember when friends in Vienna had a stillbirth while my parents were visiting, my mother kept saying, “Whatever you do, don’t disappear on them.” I had no intention of disappearing, but her words were a guiding light. “Keep calling, even if they don’t pick up.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about showing up lately. About what being there means, and about what showing up — for others, for ourselves, for the world at large — actually looks like in a world where so much is clamoring for our attention, where big and small needs sometimes get tangled up in confusing ways, and when our loved ones are all over the world.
We are still in the window between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days of awe, as they are called, and Jews are thinking about making amends, taking stock of how we’ve failed and how we’ve loved and how we’ve shown up and not shown up — both for ourselves and for others. I’ve been thinking a lot about a sermon our rabbi gave years ago, in which she framed the Mourner’s Kaddish during her sermon at Yom Kippur.
Kaddish is the Jewish prayer said in memory of the dead, and it is, by necessity, said in a group (you must have ten people, a minyan, to say it at all). (As an aside: forget that in some circles that it’s 10 men — I mean, no — but what a beautiful idea, that you need a gathering of people to say a prayer for your loved one. This is, among other reasons, because it is a call-and-response prayer, but I am taken mostly by the notion that you deserve and are entitled to and in fact need support in this moment of mourning.) The mourner stands and begins the recitation — but before that person can even finish the first sentence, the congregation responds with Amen. This happens a few times throughout — this back and forth, the mourner saying, I am broken, I am in pain, the congregation responding. Rabbi Brous explained that this is the community saying, We are here, we are here. There is no attempt to fix or change anything, to solve the unsolvable. Our only obligation is to show up, to respond with a single word. To reach out a voice, a hand. To listen. To make our presence known.
I don’t think you have to be remotely religious to see this as a beautiful, humane act, whether someone is grieving or not.
Still, this is not always easy, especially as so many of us reach the sandwich generation, caring for our kids and our parents and ourselves. I have failed at it again and again, letting people down when they needed me most (or even just a little). The need to keep the toilet paper stocked and careers going and being present for friends and checking in with parents and making sure all the forms are filled out on time and the bills paid, all as we navigate this new world where Covid isn’t something we know quite what to do with anymore (is it here? is it over? Just yesterday I learned that three people I know are struggling with long Covid): it’s a lot. The to-do list seems to multiply.
Sometimes, to be frank, I have more trouble showing up for myself than I do for others — it is easier to bake someone a cake or show up for coffee or answer 800 texts or teach yet another class than to sit down and face down my own fears and just do what I know needs to be done. To sit my ass in a chair and write. Or to face the fact that my body needs to be taken care of and I need to slow down.
But both are ultimately about showing up. Both are about an exposed heart, about perhaps saying or doing (or writing) the wrong thing. Both are about trying; both about love and vulnerability. When I’m feeling unsteady but know I want to do something — for someone else, or for myself — I think about an image my first meditation teacher, David Nichtern, conjured during a long weekend of sitting in 2005: He described a little boy on his first little league team going up to bat. His cap is falling down over his eyes, his knees are knocking together, but he stands in position, palms and fingers looped around the bat, waiting for the baseball to come at him. He’ll probably miss, but no matter. He’ll swing anyway.
Aren’t we all, on most days, like that little kid, shaky but still standing, waiting for the ball, hoping against hope to make contact?
ALL THE THINGS I’ve been reading such wonderful books lately: rereading The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Elizabeth Strout’s new Lucy by the Sea and then CJ Hauser’s The Crane Wife (I love book gifts, thank you Kathleen!!). Ed Yong wrote one final Covid piece before taking a sabbatical (I love his thread about why). Rabbi Brous’ Rosh sermon was something else. Emma Straub wrote a beautiful piece about her father’s death. I can’t get enough of Brandi Carlile’s In the Canyon Haze.
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