When my mother was young, she volunteered at a local hospital and grew close to a man who was seriously ill with a grim prognosis, but always in great spirits. How do you stay so positive? my mother asked him. What do you think about when you're lying in bed, unable to move, cut off from everything that gave you pleasure?
The places, people, and events of my life are like a series of drawers, he answered. Every day I open a new drawer, look inside, and enjoy the contents. Some are good, some bad, but I open them just the same. Then I close and save them for another time.
My mother told this story often, and kept a photo of the man in one of our family albums—thin, pale, with a goofy smile, propped up in bed surrounded by an army of nurses and volunteers. I got that it was an important lesson to learn, but never understood why. Was it about not forgetting? Or more like havdalah—separation—appreciating each thing on its own, in its time?
Last week I decided to paint, which used to take up countless hours but fell by the wayside years ago for many different reasons. I dove in, after some fits and starts; it felt great, although was a bit of a struggle. But soon I could sense my brain responding in old, familiar ways, a tether between eyes and hands that had fallen slack since college. Even the light and air around me began to look like it did decades ago, an odd déjà vu. Had nothing really changed since then? I wondered. For a moment it was incredibly depressing—I didn't want to feel the same. I'm a very different person now.
But then I looked at what I painted and saw pieces of other images that came from different drawers. I chose one color because I chant Torah; the curved line was a relationship that ended in my 30s. White space at the top: walking alongside El Malecón, Cuba, 2002. The sensations of painting were the same as always, but my brush automatically outlined snapshots of a life I had not yet lived when I was 22. I finally understood that the drawers don't have to open one at a time; it doesn't even matter if you misfile and mingle the socks with the T-shirts. The best creative jolt comes from allowing yourself to open each, good and bad, and savor what's inside.