What we give our attention to can be the making of us, or the making of our destruction. Reading Sharon’s description of the parable of the two wolves, I wondered which wolf I’ve spent parts of my life feeding.
As the child of two Holocaust survivors, I certainly grew up focusing intently on the destructive wolf. Given my background, and the fact that my parents talked openly of their ordeals in Europe, I heard a constant howling in my ears — the howl of evil. That howling wolf, a creature that seems to arise amidst humanity with a certain horrifying regularity, had decimated six million Jews. Among them were most of the members of my extended family; both my mother’s father (after whom my brother was named) and my father’s mother (whose name I carried) had been murdered in the camps.
In the New York in which I grew up, the entire neighborhood seemed composed of such immigrants, refugees from horror rebuilding their lives in the New World. Their arms were often tattooed with dehumanizing numbers, like the brands on cattle. These numbers meant they’d been interned at a death camp like Auschwitz, marked for nothing but death and burning. For ashes and the amnesia of a careless world. My parents, for better or worse, let me hear about these events from the time I was very young; they wanted me to care.
In their minds, I think they were trying to give me a mission. To remember, to be loyal to the remnants of our people, to be vigilant about the presence of evil in the world. And yet — in some way, my focus on “us” and “them,” on war and hatred in the midst of a peaceful, loving childhood, was a form of distraction, to put it mildly. There’s a famous movie, “Life is Beautiful,” in which a father, not wishing to have his son traumatized, tells him that the Nazi regime and its cruelties are all part of a game, just an amusement for his pleasure. In that way, he reinterprets and defuses the hardships that threaten to engulf the little boy. In my life, however, truly fun moments, actual games, or even neutral times, tended to be interpreted as comments on the Holocaust. We always came back to that.
My father might add m&ms to my oatmeal so I’d eat it, sending the food playfully toward my mouth like an airplane. But just as typically, my mother might pass by, peer at my spoonful of mush, and state, “that little bit of food? It could have saved a life back then.” My father had similar associations. I remember when earth tones were in – oranges, browns, olive greens, and goldenrod yellows. I wore a chocolate colored shirt one day, and what did my father think of? Nazi brownshirts, not the bounty of Gaia or even the savor of a nice piece of Lindt.
So here was my problem: I was asked to think about things, to remember, to be conscious and vigilant. And at the same time I never wanted to miss the moment in which I was living (children are good at that). In writing my memoir, THE WATCHMAKER’S DAUGHTER, I describe this very struggle between moral education and immediate experience. I think childhood won, actually – and I managed to fill my own with many sweet moments of wonder. But along with that, there was deep sorrow, a sorrow that is still woven into my mind. It’s hard to unravel. Writing the memoir started that process, making me mindful of all the elements of my life that have led to my reconciliation of opposing forces, helping me articulate my acceptance of love as the governing principle of the world.
But mindfulness meditation takes me so much further. Away from words, away from memory, the inexpressible luxury of dwelling on my God-inspired breaths, or the miraculous human body I inhabit continues my growth to this day. It feeds me like a spoonful of oatmeal packed with m&ms. It is not only as sweet; it is the sweetest thing I know. This is the wolf I’m feeding now, a noble creature, warm and reliable, dependent on no one, and always by my side.