I’m reading the Dover book Celtic Myths and Legends, first published in 1911. The examination of classical sources seems thorough and legitimate, but I keep stumbling over the “cutting edge” scholarship where the author cites the latest articles on phrenology and eugenics. Not to mention the assumption that civilization = Roman customs, so literacy in three languages and more sophisticated metallurgy don’t elevate the Celts above barbarian status because they use thatched roofs instead of tile and their women till the fields. Oy.
(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)
For the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, JWA created an exhibit to highlight the stories of evacuees and survivors of the storm, based on interviews we had recorded shortly after Katrina. I listened to stories of heartbreaking losses, narrow escapes, and rare moments of unexpected humor. And as I sifted through hundreds of hours of interview footage with people from across the Jewish community in Louisiana—a retired judge, a rebbetzin, social workers, doctors, a handful of teenage girls—I saw patterns emerging, heard echoes from one story to the next: the struggle to articulate an experience of exile and loss not usually seen outside a war zone. The pain and disappointment of watching friends scatter to the four winds, many never to return, mingled with excitement at the realization that the people who stayed (and the newcomers who came to rebuild) brought an energy and determination to make the city better. And the shame, after a lifetime of giving, of needing to ask others for help.
When a volunteer asked Roselle Ungar how she was doing, in the same gentle tone Roselle herself had used a thousand times, she cried, “No, no, no. This is wrong. I’m supposed to be you.” Miriam Waltzer’s mother had taught her to slip money under people’s doors to ensure they wouldn’t feel ashamed of taking charity, and she had given generously to many causes over the years, but now she had no clothes to wear, and no bed to sleep on. Despite her desperate situation, she could only bring herself to accept help by promising to pay everything back.
Stories like these make me ache with recognition. It’s not just about pride, or self-reliance; so much of my sense of myself as a good person is based on what I am able to do for others—I’m the friend you call at two in the morning when you’re at the end of your rope, the one who helps you move into your apartment despite the rainstorm, the one who will drive two hours to cheer you on at your first reading at a tiny bookstore. If I can’t do those things for my friends, or worse, if I need to ask for help instead of offering it, that whole sense of self starts to crumble. I know it’s not logical—I never think less of my friends for needing my help, so why should they think less of me for needing theirs?—but that doesn’t ease my discomfort.
But some Katrina survivors found that once they got past that discomfort, being on the receiving end of help was a powerful experience. Bluma Rivkin, a rebbetzin who regularly helped and sheltered others in dire straits, said, “I never realized how difficult it is to be in a situation where you haveto be a guest . . . I hope that I’ll remember that feeling and I hope that I’ll be more sensitive and accommodating.” Ruth Kullman’s sister, a working single mother, had often leaned on Ruth, but when Ruth needed help after Katrina, their relationship shifted in important and beautiful ways, becoming more equal. And Susan Levitas realized that it can be arrogant to refuse help, to need to always be the one giving. “There is a wonderful gift in the way you make someone feel who gets to take care of you,” she said.
Listening to them, I began to realize how unbalanced some of my friendships were. Slowly, I’ve stopped resisting when friends offer to help, and even started reaching out when I need them. It hasn’t made me less of a good person, or used up my credit with them. What it has done is shown me that my friends are really spectacular under pressure, and that they care for me more deeply than I’d ever realized. Letting go of the arrogance of giving has been an unexpected gift.
I’ve been very private about this, but I think it’s time to talk about it publicly: For the past two years, I’ve been struggling with ulcerative colitis. The symptoms are rather like having horrible food poisoning every day. We’re finally at the point where drugs, diet, and holistic options have all been exhausted, and I’m going to need surgery. If all goes according to plan, this is going to mean two major surgeries a few months apart, with a long recuperation after each.
Prayers and good mojo are very much appreciated. For those who use it, my Hebrew name is Liba Batya bat Malka Aliza.
I’ll keep you all posted about the details to know when to send good thoughts my way, and to let you know how recovery is going. With luck, this will help me get back the life I had before I was sick.