This is the first installment of a series of essays written by Diana Shaw Clark.
There are five of us at the table, taking turns asking one another “Are you busy today?” in a guttural language that puts my tongue in a twist. I sound as if I’m clearing my throat to expectorate. I know this because the teacher records our sessions and the playback makes me cringe.
Five people with five distinct reasons to be in this room: “Do you have a new phone?” “May I have more beer”? “How Are You?”
One works for a multinational. One is attached to an embassy. Another is marrying a local. Another is making Aliyah. Another is me.
Why, you ask?
One reason is straightforward and pragmatic. I come to Israel often enough that I should be able to go out for breakfast without subjecting myself to humiliation when a waitress half my age, with less than half my schooling, sassily takes my order in English. What’s galling is, she’s entitled to condescend to me. She speaks my language. I want revenge. Or at least some dignity when asking for coffee and eggs.
The other reason? I had a bad break up last spring. No, not that kind of break-up. Mercifully, my marriage is intact.
No. I turned sixty and lo! My relationship with infinity was through.
As often occurs in more conventional splits, I didn’t see it coming. For six decades we’d been on close terms. Afternoons in summer, mornings in primary school, the yawning span between 2:00 and 3:05 in Junior High, the 405 freeway between Santa Monica and Hollywood, my first pregnancy. My second.
Each an infinity in a succession of infinities that would, I imagined, stretch on to, well, infinity.
There was always going to be more time, a tomorrow and a day after. If I squandered any single day or week or year in some folly, there were plenty more after that.
Still wed to infinite possibility at fifty, I referred to that birthday as “my first half century”.
Anyone could have told me the clues were there all along. Of course they were. But the knowledge that mortals age and die is meaninglessly abstract when you’re in a visceral relationship with time. So on the eve of my most recent birthday, I went to bed with that limitless horizon still ahead and woke at 60 with the shoals in view. A mortality moment, if you will.
Overnight, the infinite had given way to the finite and rather than shrink from or deny it, I resolved to reckon squarely with the truth. Life, which had always seemed so rich with possibility, wasn’t about options any more. I’d had sixty years to consider and explore my options. From now, it’s about priorities.
Reoriented and resolved, I assessed everything I had thought matters to me and considered everything I’ve told myself I intend to do “some day”. Knowing there aren’t a limitless number of some days, I reassessed to discern what I would do now.
This is not the same as compiling a Bucket List, an obnoxious concept that demeans life by diminishing it to a series of “experiences.”. The point of winnowing in the way I’ve described was to call my moral bluff. If something matters to me as much as I imagine, it’s time to do it.
What I did is book a flight to Tel Aviv, rent a flat in the city center and enroll in Ulpan.
You often hear that people become more attached to their faith and their heritage as they age, and that seems to be true for me. I grew up in a secular household, in a town that had no synagogue and no one I could relate to as a Jew. Yet looking back, I see how Judaism informed my life. My parents were tirelessly devoted to social justice and to the kind of pragmatic moral philosophy that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, among others, extols as the “life changing” innovation of the Jews. And while I have long loved Israel, for just as long, I have longed to love it unconditionally. But the country that was founded for the sake of a people whose defining faith teaches a reverence for life, a belief that all people are made in G*d’s image, and that charity and loving the stranger are to be practiced and prized above all, has chosen leaders who betray those values by imposing policies that deny the humanity and deprive of dignity of an entire segment of its population. I’m here to try to understand why Israel isn’t living up to the ideals expressed in its scripture, or more pertinently, in its magnificent Declaration of Independence, and to work with local civic society groups committed to restoring those ideals.
And so twice each week, I join my classmates going round the table, asking “Is the coffee ready?”, “Where is the bus station?,” at increasing velocity as our confidence grows.
Every authority on aging well gives the same advice: take up something new. Interpret that as you will. Curling for some, banjo for others. Hebrew for me.
Two days since our last session, we’re back, this time learning the numerals by reciting our phone numbers. The new girl is showing us up and a class that had been united in spirited vexation is in turns subdued by self-doubt and spurred on by spite. As we stutter and stumble and fail to recall, she speaks with such fluency I suspect she’s a plant. It could be we didn’t seem to be taking class seriously enough and this chirpy young thing has been drafted in to give us a hint.
I wish I’d learned Hebrew decades ago when my synapses fired efficiently and there was nothing laughable about aspiring to fluency. But I know why I didn’t, and why I feel differently now. Back then I was vain, too vain to risk screwing up in some way: addressing a male using the feminine form, for example, or asking for “breasts” when I meant to buy strawberries.
Not anymore. Vanity after sixty is delusional. Not that it’s an asset at any time of life, but now in particular, it’s self-defeating and a colossal waste of time. There’s no point caring about my image or giving a hoot what anyone thinks, because if there’s one thing I’ve come to know, it’s that “anyone” doesn’t think anything of me at all.
I’m guessing that most of us have a hard time accepting how or even that, we’ve changed over time. We discard the photos that disappoint us, the ones that show us looking different from how we think we are, the ones that explain why that hot barista brusquely sets down our coffee and doesn’t look up when he hands us our change.
In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher’s brother asks how a person would behave if she were able to be invisible. For a woman at sixty, that’s more than a theoretical proposition. She can actually try it out. Plato’s brother is concerned with virtue; would such a person be good? I don’t know about that. What I know is that such a person could be goofy, could make all of the mistakes with language and protocol that once filled her with dread. Like the falling tree that makes no sound if no one’s there to hear it. I can’t be humiliated when no one gives a damn.
I expected Ulpan to be instructive and I knew it would be challenging. But I didn’t expect it to be liberating. And while the words and phrases I’ve been learning have helped me feel more at home in Tel Aviv, with the more critical discovery, that at sixty self-consciousness is altogether dispensable, I feel at home in the world more than ever before.
Stay tuned for Diana’s next essay.
Diana Shaw Clark is a writer and activist in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Forward Association.