Annabelle Gurwitch been guest blogging for the Visiting Scribe this week about her latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are. Her second post elaborates on the story about her mother’s philanthropic side which she did not get to include in her collection.
As much as I was moved by mother’s recounting of her mission to aid the Refuseniks in Russia, I wasn’t able to fit that story into either my book or my assignment for Oprah’s website. This is an example of how even if you have a story that holds great meaning for you and it has intrinsic value on it’s own, it just might not find a home in what you are publishing.
Then, in December, a friend invited me to a ritual in celebration of the winter solstice. I typically roll my eyes at such things, but it had been a month since my mother’s death and the idea of communing with friends seemed comforting and I heard there would be wine.
At the ritual, our circle of friends was invited to share on the subject of when we felt the happiest and without thinking I blurted out, “When I am being useful to others.”
Without thinking I’d uttered the same phrase, with the exact same inflection as my mother and although I’ve never smuggled medical supplies into another country, I mentor high school seniors, an activity that I find deeply rewarding. At the same time, I could have easily answered, “When receiving a deep tissue massage.” Ok, in truth, being useful ranks a bit below the massage, especially if hot stones are included. I moved this section up closer to the mother’s statement so it would be connected. You can decide where this next section belongs.
Evolutionary biologists have shown that as a species we adapted in a way that makes us predisposed to want to help our communities, this is part of how Homo Sapiens managed to survive, thrive and to dominate the Neanderthals who never quite managed that level of cooperation with each other. So, this idea isn’t limited to Jews, to be fair, still Kelly, who was leading the ritual, then invited us to close our eyes and think of one word that could encapsulate a spiritual wish for our new year. I closed my eyes and quieted my mind. The only word I could think of was word.
That’s right, a certain kind of what I call, “obtusitude,” a prideful streak of obtuseness, runs in our family as well. Near the end of her life, my mother started calling the hospice rabbi, “Aquaduct,” which makes sense in a certain way so it was hard to tell if she was deliberately referring to the rabbi as a conduit to the source of all life or if her brain function was deteriorating. I noticed I’d passed this trait on to my offspring when my four year old was asked to draw something at a kindergarten evaluation and all the other children in the session drew colorful depictions of rainbows and families holding hands, while my kid refused to use crayons, instead, producing a pencil rendering of “a foot inside a foot.” That drawing hangs in a place of honor on a wall of my home. So, I planned to say, “Word,” on my turn.
One by one, people offered a variety of aspirational type wishes on the order of: ease, mindfulness, and centering. Just once, I’d love for someone to say: “self-deprecating sense of humor”at one of these types of things, alas no one did. Surprising myself, “Elegance” is what popped out of mouth when it was my turn. Elegance? I’ve never considered that a spiritual aspiration but it does connote a sense of ease, mindfulness, centering and another thing I place a high value on: quality footwear. What happened to “word”? Did it strike you that you had changed your mind?
Several days later the furniture I’d shipped from my mother’s apartment arrived at my house. As I gave my neighbor Barbara a tour of she stopped in her tracks in front of a pair of art deco lamps and said, “Elegant.”
For the record, I do not truck in any sort of mystical or “mean to be” type of thinking. After years of losing lucky necklaces, hoarding crystals and visualizing my great jobs and even better parking spots, I kicked that kind of thinking to the curb.
Still, sometimes the random universe gifts us with a reminder of a connection that even if it exists only in our minds, delights us with the promise of stylish shoes that are comfortable enough to run in and that keeps our bond to our ancestors alive.
Annabelle Gurwitch is a Thurber Prize for American Humor Writing finalist and New York Times bestselling author of five books, most recently You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility (Counterpoint, now out in paperback) a New York Times’ Favorite Book About Healthy Living 2021 and a Good Morning America Must Read. She was the longtime host of Dinner & a Movie on TBS, a regular NPR contributor, and has written for The New Yorker, New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, and WSJ amongst other publications. She co-hosts the Tiny Victories podcast on the Maximum Fun Podcast Network.