I had been volunteering at a soup kitchen near Mahne Yehuda for about six months when I received a call from Zehava, the head volunteer, telling me not to come back. She said that the place had closed down, that it was very sad, but that this news would likely not come as a surprise to me. She was right. Each week I had noticed that there was less and less meat on offer (mini hot dogs, skimpy chicken wings), that the carrots were looking older and more faded, that the size of the plastic plates had gone from large to medium to small. The last time I was there Zehava had also pointed out that the sweet potatoes were off, and when I asked her how she could tell, she held up a spoonful and demonstrated the gluey substance attaching one to the other. I thought of the needy people who arrived there every day for a hot lunch and wondered where they would go now. Then, when I hung up the phone, I started wondering where I would go.
“You know what a challenge it was for me to call this place,” I said to Ronit. “To find the phone number. To speak in Hebrew. To meet new people. And now I have to start all over again.”
Ronit gestured with her hands in such a way as to say, Well yes, this kind of thing happens in life.
“And soon my ulpan class will be over too,” I said. “The thing about ulpan is that it’s filled with Americans, and the Americans who live around here tend to go back to America for the summer.”
We – my family – were going back too, but only for three weeks: an increase from the originally planned ten days and a change I had impulsively made after Ronit suggested we not do anything impulsive.
“And then there’s book club,” I said. “The next few books aren’t ones I really want to read anyway. So maybe the easiest thing would be for me to drop out of that too.”
It was happening. I was reverting to form. I was returning to the person I had been for my first 17 years in Israel, before I had started seeing Ronit. The loner housebound shut-in recluse. My work – freelance editing – was an enabler, as it didn’t require me to go any farther than the laptop sitting next to me on my nightside table. Was being a loner genetic? My father had been one too, his world growing smaller and smaller as he aged.
“The truth is,” I said to Ronit, “I would be perfectly content to do nothing but come here and sit with you. Actually I have this image of me, a child-me, following you around your new apartment, watching how you do your renovations, my blankie dragging along on the floor behind me.”
I was afraid of how Ronit would respond to this. I knew I was taking a chance, but wasn’t I supposed to say whatever popped into my head? Wasn’t that the idea behind free association? Should I have censored myself out of fear that she might say something back to me that I didn’t want to hear? One time she had told me that life was meant to be lived “out there,” not “in here,” and I – being me – had taken offense. What did she mean life was meant to be lived out there and not in here? I wasn’t her life? She wasn’t mine?
“You know,” she said, “all species – not just humans – are geared towards raising their young to eventually leave.”
My heart plunged. My stomach tightened. I had been right to be afraid. In fact things were even worse than I thought, and got worse yet as she looked to bolster her argument.
“Songs have been written about the subject,” she continued. “I’m sure you know uf gozal.”
I couldn’t talk. The air in the room had completely turned. What Ronit had said to me seemed the saddest thing in the world, and what I felt right then could only be called despair. Later, I would think of the psychologist Alice Miller, who wrote that an adult re-experiencing the emotional abandonment of childhood only proved that the child – had she been cognizant of what was happening to her at the time – could not have tolerated the pain. But I wasn’t thinking of Miller then. I was thinking of uf gozal, a song about young chicks spreading their wings and flying away from the nest.
“What is it?” Ronit said finally, after two or three minutes of silence. Two or three minutes is a lot longer than one might think.
“Can’t,” I managed to eke out.
“Try,” she said.
Silence for another minute. “Why do you push me away?” I said, in not much more than a whisper. “I don’t understand. You give me mixed messages. You say, Stay. Then in the next breath you say, Leave. Make up your mind.”
“I’m not saying leave,” she said. “And I think you know that.”
I didn’t. She was too tough for me. She was too Israeli. I wanted one of those soft coddling therapists. A friend had once told me that her therapist “emanated pure love,” and at the moment nothing sounded better to me. Then again, that friend had dropped out of therapy; she had said it was getting her nowhere.
I was still finding it hard to talk – I had to fight past the lump in my throat. But at some point I said, “Remember the note I wrote to my mother when I was little? The one that said I love you but you don’t love me? Well, I almost feel that that’s the same note I bring to you here, session after session.”
Ronit didn’t respond. I remembered that when I had told her about the note originally, I also asked her whether she thought it had been manipulative of me: whether, in her opinion, a six-year-old was capable of that kind of manipulation. She had shrugged, as if the question were beside the point. Perhaps it was manipulative, she said, but that didn’t make it any less sad.
“I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about uf gozal,” I said. “In what way could it possibly make me feel better? You and your husband are the ones flying away, to your new nest in Tel Aviv, to grow old together. Great. And I don’t even know where the new nest is.”
Ronit smiled. “Listen,” she said. “Think of how you feel when your children take steps towards leading their own lives. I’ve seen the look on your face when you talk about those moments. What could be more meaningful for a parent than helping a child achieve independence?”
Negative capability – the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in one’s head at the same time – became my constant companion over the next weeks and months. I wanted to tell Ronit to go to hell, to find her meaning elsewhere. But I also wanted to thank her, for her ability to resist the strength of my wishes: wishes that I knew were fundamentally not good for me, wishes to keep her in the starring role of my life. I couldn’t imagine how one could turn down that role; didn’t people want to be stars? I tried to figure out where this all came from. Sure, my father had been front and center for me, but while he hadn’t minded, I was pretty confident that he too, like Ronit, had ultimately wanted me to find my own way. Perhaps it had more to do with my mother? Wishing that she’d wanted a starring role? In any event, Ronit’s goal was apparently neither to have top billing nor to keep me there forever; it was, rather, to help me to leave. Eventually. How horrible. How wonderful.
I didn’t seek out a volunteer job at another soup kitchen, but I found a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who welcomed my weekly visits at a nearby old-age home. I didn’t find another ulpan, but I found an easy-Hebrew history class, which I enrolled in together with a friend I’d met in ulpan. I skipped a few book club meetings, but I didn’t drop out altogether. Reluctantly, I was continuing on my flight path away from the nest. Ronit was giving me no choice.