Saturday, May 19, 2012

An Old, Traditional Recipe for Joy

My mother-in-law was wise in ways that could take me by surprise. She didn’t know the geography of the United States, which was not her native country, but she knew firsthand what it was like to travel across Europe on foot in the dead of night, hiding by day in barns and forests, as she made her way out of the land where her people were being slaughtered, to freedom. She knew and loved only one book in the English language – Robinson Crusoe – but when she was very young she had read Tolstoy – Anna Karenina, even all of War and Peace – in the original Russian. She didn’t understand American art, architecture, thinking, fashions, language and styles, but she fervently loved the United States of America nonetheless, and proudly flew the Stars and Stripes from a flagpole on her front porch. 
She had her own, inherent wisdom that was a blend of the Old and New Worlds, but mostly the Old. She told about her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty when she was seventeen – how she had come up from steerage with the others with whom she had made the unbearably hot, long, putrid, uncomfortable Atlantic crossing, and they had stood on the deck and wept with joy at finally, actually seeing Lady Liberty directly ahead, and getting closer. How she and her mother, step-father and sisters (Her brother had been killed outside their home in the outskirts of Kiev, and his body had lain in the street for days, because the neighborhood was under siege and they feared stepping outside to claim his body.) had lived in crowded tenements in New York City, side-by-side with families from Italy, Poland, and Germany. How every housewife knew only the recipes of her homeland, and only seven of those . . . because the menu changed from day to day, but not from week to week. How they learned to swap dishes (not the recipes, but the finished products) so that the Jewish family occasionally had Mrs. Romano’s lasagna for dinner, and the Italians snacked on Mrs. Goldberg’s knishes.
She had great stories to tell, and I deeply regret not having heard more of them, and saved them to cherish and share. But there was a Russian proverb she may have told me about only once or many times, I only know that it burned itself into my memory because it contained a precious core of that Old World wisdom. “Work as though you’re going to live forever,” she quoted. “Live as though you’re going to die tomorrow.”
I think of that often, when I am facing the question of which to do . . . pay the bills, water the garden, tidy the house, visit my grandchildren, fold the laundry, take a nap, accompany my husband to a jazz gig he’s playing, go kayaking with my daughter, listen to Classical music while catching up on the ironing, or finish reading my book club’s latest choice. Which is work, and which is living? Some things are clear . . . housework isn’t called housework for nothing. And I’d never pass up a chance to be with my daughter or the grandchildren. For my husband, a gig is work, but listening to the music he makes with his talent brings me joy, and feels like play. (Isn’t that why we call it “playing music?”) Other things are more murky . . . watering the garden . . . working, or living? Hauling the kayak out of the garage and getting it ready for the season . . . working, or preparing to live more fully? Visiting a sick friend . . . an obligation, or a privilege, a chance to feel useful, an act of affirming the importance of life?
I’ve decided that if it feels like work, I’ll do some of it today and save the rest for tomorrow. But if it feels like living . . .bring it on!
Life becomes joyful when I remember my mother-in-law’s Russian proverb. Whenever possible, I try to work as though I’m going to live forever, parceling out time for the necessary (and sometimes joyless) tasks, and live – making time to enjoy the pleasures of life – as though this day may be my last.