Layla-Saad

On Being a Mensch

Metal Art by Jon Grauman

This morning, I’m thinking about how we are steeped in a culture that worships saviors and skewers villains, that rides into the sunset on a high-horse of good guys and bad guys.

The great American narrative rests on oversimplification, which by definition erases and denies whole swaths of experience and truth.

Celebrity and consumer culture get in bed together to back this up, and they both rely on us thinking we’re not enough and/or our lives are something to improve or escape.

Writing, art, and leadership that ask more of us, that mirror our capacity to grapple with truth and nuance, are more critical and life-giving than ever.

Who or what calls forth and mirrors your multifaceted brilliance, your innate complexity, your ability to think intelligently and act conscientiously?

Who or what banks on your reactivity or self-loathing?

Who or what feeds on your inclination to judge and condemn?

Who or what preys on hero-worship and wins every time you abdicate personal responsibility?

In Yiddish, the word mensch — something we think of as an exceptionally “good” person — simply means “person.” And to truly be a person, a mensch, requires a degree of self-reflection, awareness, integrity, and discernment.

Today I’m going to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Where am I choosing — and where am I asleep?

Layla-Saad

The Reunion, Part Two

After she read the piano reunion story on my blog, my mom pointed something out. Something that changed either everything or nothing about the emotional experience I’d had just hours earlier: We didn’t have a Steinway & Sons.

The baby grand at The Arbors had never been my piano after all, and what I perceived — and at the time wholeheartedly believed — to be a reunion with a childhood instrument was nothing of the sort. At least not in the way I had imagined.

At first, this struck me as almost desperately funny; there I had been, weeping, playing my heart out, on a keyboard it turned out I had never so much as laid hands or eyes on before.

But then, something else fluttered into me, something akin to shame. I felt sheepish, as if I’d done something wrong. Did I need to recant what I’d shared about how moving that thirty minutes had been? Was there something like a lie, a hint of fraudulence, tied up in my story, now that I had learned the truth? Other questions swam past, too: What had happened to the piano my parents had donated there? Where is it now?

Needless to say: All day, I’ve been considering perception.

I believed it to be my piano. Clearly I wanted, even needed, for this to be true. The experience of playing it had given something back to myself, of myself. In sitting down in that empty room, at what I thought was the piano that had witnessed me grow up, in doing so in the place where two of my grandparents lived their last years, time reached around its own body, performing a bind of sorts, clasping its own ends together and holding me safely inside that gentle grasp.

The tears that spilled weren’t, ultimately, about the actual piano, but for everything it had represented to me over the years, from earliest childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood and motherhood, through death and divorce and becoming and remarriage. As my hands hovered over and moved across those keys, something in me settled, as if the waters in me had quieted, revealing depths I’d always known were there.

It is said that we see what we want to see, and this may be a fact. For nearly 11 years, I was married to a man, devoted to our commitment and growing a family together. Coming out shattered that, but it didn’t make my life a sham. It took me some years to fully believe and embrace this, to let go of guilt or self-doubt, and not to punish myself for having lived an unconscious lie.

Deception is not the same as ignorance. Had I written about the piano reunion with the knowledge that came later that it wasn’t the piano of my youth, that would’ve been manipulative and dishonest.

But my experience had been authentic, untouched by any such knowledge, and this leads me to believe that the reunion stands. Maybe it was a reunion with some cherished part of my past, myself.

And in that case, my perception provided me with a potent gift, the gift of believing in meaning and memory, in the power of presence and practice to witness us as we grow and transform over the years.

In the end, the piano itself is nothing more than a symbol of time’s passage, of returning to roots and of letting roots go, of arriving at a place that exists only within, where the music has always lived, like an underground spring with no name.