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The space between continents

I'd been expecting disaster to strike; now, as the story that gives shape to our lives falls apart, I'm learning to be patient while I wait for a new one to emerge
Jerusalem, March 25, 2020.
Jerusalem, March 25, 2020.

I have been living in fear that planes will stop flying in the sky since January of 2017. That was when Trump signed the executive order that came to be known as the Muslim Ban. He signed it on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Ban stranded hundreds of travelers in airports; tens of thousands of visitors who had come to the US legally discovered that their visas were no longer valid.

I took in the news from my home in Richmond, Virginia, and I wept.

As an American citizen I was safe from this particular crisis, but who would they come for next? How could I continue my work as a law professor when law as I knew it was falling apart? And what would I do if borders closed and I couldn’t get back to Israel?

I’d already been separated from family by international crises twice: during the 1991 Gulf War and following 9/11. My grandparents’ traumas in Europe also began with separations they imagined, or hoped, would be temporary. The prospect of history repeating itself loomed.

On the Monday after the Muslim Ban hit, I wrote to Charles Eisenstein — a colleague whose book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, was helping me orient toward the new reality. I asked him how we might prepare for the breakdown of a functioning economy and legal system.

“There are practical things to do: water, canned goods, generators, etc.” I wrote. “Lots of people will be scrambling for those. But we will also need codes of conduct, agreements about morality, habits of the heart. … I don’t know. I really don’t. … [N]ot knowing is the truth for me in this moment. … Suddenly it all feels rawer.”

I hit send, drove to the bank, and withdrew more cash than I ever have. The teller was chipper; it was a day like any other day. Then I paid for an Amazon prime subscription, I bought three solar chargers, and I made plans with a friend to go shopping for emergency supplies.

Charles wrote back late that night. “I don’t know what to do now either. It isn’t necessarily to buy generators though.… But yeah, it’s gonna break down. I think our orienting principle right now is to prepare for the collective space between stories.”

The Space Between Stories is Charles’ term for the place we go to when the old story that gave shape to our lives falls apart. There’s an impulse to resist the breakdown, to fight or try to fix it using the old tools. That’s not how we will find our way to the new story. The new story will emerge when we surrender to the space between, when we connect with others who are ready to abide in not knowing.

Our exchange helped me catch my breath, and shift from shopping to loving. It helped me appreciate that the most critical resource is community, and it led me to pour as much energy as I could into my local relationships while also confronting the limits of my American assimilation project.

Today, I live in Jerusalem. I thank God many times every day that I am here — close to family and lifelong friends, surrounded by people who speak both my languages and whose histories intersect with mine, supported by land that my animal self associates with the safety of a blessed childhood. Limestone rocks dotted with lichen. Cypress trees. Bougainvillea. Wild anemones and irises. A sun that rises over mountains and sets in the sea.

But these last few weeks, as airports began to close, as the nightmare that has been haunting me turned to reality, there was no joy in having been right.

There was grief and fear and longing and love. I miss my friends on the other side of the ocean. I miss places — the James River, the Long Island shore, Central Park.

As I try to find strength, I remember my grandmother Ola. In her testimony about surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, she recalls marching in the cold to a forced labor site.

We would meet, 5 o’clock in the morning, when was dark. Dark dark. And was cold. … we didn’t have nothing to drink and eat. And … we went far away… 18 kilometer …. But one day was a beautiful sun. And that day made me feel like: I am a walker! And we went through the bridge. Beautiful river—Vistula. The sun was shining. …. I love bridges. That’s was the … day [I thought]: if I survive, I will walk all the bridges.

Ola Schary lived to carry out her promise. She walked every day she could, and she marveled at every bridge, every flower, every painting, every ocean.

I see her over the Atlantic now, taking in the beauty of a sky without planes. The space between continents. I see her reassuring us that we will all meet again. We will meet in new ways we can’t even imagine. We will meet and we will tell a new story about why we are here and where we want to be going.

We already are.

About the Author
Shari Sarah Motro was born in New York, and was raised in Herzliya. She studied philosophy at Yale, law at NYU, and two semesters of Arabic at the University of Jordan. Motro served in the Strategic Planning Division of the IDF, practiced law at Davis Polk and Wardwell and worked as a senior research fellow at Empax before joining the faculty of the University of Richmond School of Law in 2005. She became a full professor in 2011. She also taught at Yale College, University of Fribourg, and Georgetown University. She now lives in Jerusalem where she is based at the Van Leer Institute, while remaining affiliated with the University of Richmond. To receive notices of updates to this blog, please write to smotro@richmond.edu with "Subscribe Times of Israel" in the subject line.
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