Earlier this week we lost Buja, our mixed breed ravishing dog, who has been with us for the last 17 years. She was a part of us, of our family, and we loved her dearly. As she got older, it became increasingly difficult and painful for her to walk, yet she continued to walk around the house, simply because she wanted to be near us. This blog post – and Daniel's illustration – are dedicated to her.
This blog post had a difficult birth. I had the thread of an idea, but I didn’t know where to take it. I needed some stories to help me make sense of it and some time to mull things over and process the raw material.
As happens from time to time, it started with a flash, a fragmented thought. A few weeks ago a sentence got stuck in my mind and refused to leave me in peace, demanding that I respond.
Never Let Them See You Sweat
This catch-phrase – a slogan from an advertisement for deodorant – came from nowhere and refused to budge until I gave it the time and reflection it deserves. Above all – until I worked out why it had popped up in front of me in the first place.
I embarked on a dialogue with this phrase.
“To start with – why? Why should we never let people see us sweat? Everyone does it, don’t they? It’s just the body’s natural and healthy way of cooling itself and releasing toxins. So why should we keep it a secret? Why should we pretend that we don’t do that?”
“What do you want from me,” the sentence retorted. “I’m just a punch line in an advertisement. Maybe you need to work out why I’m bothering you so much.”
The pest of a sentence was right, of course. It wasn't about him, but me. He came to bother me while I was preoccupied with thoughts about sweat. The sweat that comes from a real effort – a physical effort, a mental effort, the effort of thought. I was thinking about sweat that pours out in an attempt to contain and process the sadness and countless emotions aroused by various events and encounters that have shaken my soul, on the personal and the political levels.
So as happens from time to time, writing became a process of deciphering. Sweat became a metaphor, a symbol representing something else. Maybe tears or sadness. In short – an effort of the heart. And in the end that is what was written: Sweat. Sadness. Effort.
“You’ll feel a slight sense of pressure in your lower back.” If I remember rightly, that’s how Sheila Kitzinger, the high priestess of birth preparation books, described the pain of contractions 25 years ago. “Yeah, right,” I thought to myself while crouching on all fours, a small elephant in a cat/dog Yoga position on the lawn outside the delivery room at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. I tried to “breathe over the contraction, following Kitzinger's teachings. “Pressure in your lower back” didn’t even begin to describe my feelings just before entering the delivery room: enormous excitement, fear, and a realization that something big was going on inside me and in my life.
“When breastfeeding, it’s important to consume a large quantity of liquids,” I read in the same book, after returning home with my treasure, my first son, in my arms. Why not just say that women who have just given birth sweat like racehorses?
The first visit to the mother and child clinic was a really special day. Daniel, the new stroller, and I made our way up the steep road to the clinic. Daniel, the stroller and I – together with flowing streams of sweat. By the time I got to the clinic I was soaking wet. Beads of sweat covered my eyes, smudging my carefully-applied makeup and filling my mouth with a salty taste.
My sense of excitement at this new first was muted by a sense of tremendous vulnerability before the wiry, efficient, and bone-dry nurse with her judgmental gaze. Maybe she wasn’t really judgmental and it was just me, with my new mother vulnerability, who felt that.
“Tell me, do you have something against sadness?” the flight attendant asked me as we served out food and drinks on a plane full of passengers and not full enough of oxygen headed for New York. He added a hint of a smile to show that he was aware of his own charm. Even at a distance of 30 years, I must admit that this is one of the better pickup lines I’ve heard. A combination of the professional humor of flight attendants and a pretension to understand the complex soul of women who love tormented men…
Sadness is a wonderful word – poetical, creating associations of a thread of sorrow, melancholy, soft grayness, malaise. The sweat of the soul that seeks to cool itself and rid itself of toxins.
Never Let Them See You Sad
That’s an advertisement slogan they haven’t used yet. Anyway, no elixir or medicine can really cure sadness. Like sweat, sadness is the body’s totally natural reaction to pain, injustice, and cruelty. Sadness is anger’s melancholy sister, the one that turns its energies inwards.
I’d guess that almost every language in the world has a word for sadness. How many poems must have been written in all these languages about sadness? Thousands, if not more.
Anyway, it strikes me how rarely I use that word in the context of my work. That’s why they invented words such as fascinating, complex, moving, and challenging. As if sadness is something that doesn’t have its own place in the context of struggles for social change.
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” This is the terrible punishment God imposes on Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They won’t enjoy the fruit-laden trees any more. Effort – that’s the punishment for their lust for knowledge. Their curiosity. Their subversion. Their disobedience. Effort and sweat. If Adam and Eve had only been more obedient and less curious, we would all still be living in Eden without effort and without sweat. And without knowledge.
It took me years to accept effort lovingly – not to be afraid or ashamed of it. Not to be angry with myself when things don’t work out. After all, nothing important ever comes easily. Letting go never comes easily. Neither does love, learning, or acceptance – and certainly not change.
Even so, in the hundreds of grant proposals I’ve written and read over the years, I’ve never seen anyone write: “Inequality (or oppression, racism, violence…) is a serious social problem that makes us very sad. Sometimes this sadness is so profound that for a moment it challenges our belief in our ability to change things. It demands that we invest almost superhuman efforts, to sweat, to neglect our loved ones, and to argue with those closest to us. But we care too much, and we would never thinking of abandoning the struggle. So we will continue to make an effort, to sweat, and to get angry – so that we can change things. We’ll be delighted if you see fit to support us…”
Effort: in memory of a beloved dog. Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima
In a soft, circular movement
The twilight hours are the best time for sweet sadness. Late on Friday afternoon, Jerusalem is so quiet. I can hear Dana, our splendid black Labrador, biting her own feet energetically. Outside the last birds are singing.
All around me is quiet now and I can listen to the sadness. A sadness that is sometimes the product of the gap between what we manage to do and what’s still left to be done. A sadness born of longing, of something stolen that cannot be regained. A personal sadness and a political sadness at the way of the world.
I began writing in sadness at a phrase from an advertisement, and I end in a soft, circular movement. I gather in my pain, sorrow, sweat, and effort together with those of the people who touch my heart during the encounters this work sparks. Yes: I choose to end this process of writing with a soft, circular movement. Because compassion is a political act toward ourselves and toward others. It is born of the sad realization that so much needs to be repaired here. There is no reason for us to waste our energy trying to pretend that we aren’t sweating or that we aren’t in pain.