I didn’t want to go to Israel. I know that’s a terribly spoiled child point of view, but that’s the truth. When I looked it up the first search hit was “terrorist threat” (which, if you’re interested, was not considered zero). In fact, it was a chance conversation with my friend Lia who told me she was considering going there at Christmas that made me think again.
My Israel trip coincided with discovering Ann Patchett. Readers will be familiar with the “reading rut”: you’ve exhausted all your go-to reads, and nothing on your shelves seems appealing. All of a sudden, a writer emerges – an odd article mentions them in passing, and you’re away. How had I never read Ann Patchett before? Wonderfully, you discover their large back-catalogue, and suddenly the reading vista seems plentiful again; the reading world infinite once more.
So much about This is the Story of a Happy Marriage spoke to me. In “Do not Disturb” Patchett writes:
“what we want out of a vacation changes as we age. It changes from vacation to vacation. There was a time when it was all about culture for me. My idea of a real break was to stay in museums until my legs ached… later I became a disciple of relaxation and looked for words like beach and massage when making my plans… Now I strive for transcendent invisibility and the chance to accomplish the things I can’t get done at home.”
As a full-time, main scale teacher, I went on holiday to do two things: 1. To read books; 2. To sit still. The daily life of a teacher is energetic to say the least, and so all I really wanted to do was sit down. (I always want to read, so that is always my number one aim of anything I’m doing or anywhere I’m going.) My partner, by contrast, has a job that involves a lot of desk-sitting, so his ideal holiday consists of moving and doing. We are not, sadly, ideal holiday companions. This time, we took the advice an Israeli colleague and headed for Tel Aviv, which seemed to have it all: beaches for me to sit on, and no end of things to see and do.
On the penultimate day, we took a small group tour to visit Jerusalem. I want to write about Jerusalem while it is fresh in my mind, and I want to write about it when it is not. I want to find out what stays with me and what melts away, though I suppose writing about anything will also change the experience.
In my ignorance, I’d not known that Jerusalem is a city of three religions: I knew, of course, that the city was disputed by Jews and Muslims; I had been less aware of the Christian elements of the city (and the Armenian presence was a mystery to me). Friends had warned me that I might find disapproving looks from the ultra-religious in the different “quarters”, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, the only location where anyone glanced at our group with anything approaching distaste was during prayers at King David’s tomb, when, perhaps understandably, a man trying to focus on his prayer in the space (which is also a synagogue) was unhappy at our looming, encroaching presence.
At site after site, our tour guide spoke honestly of the reality of what we were seeing: “this is where they say Jesus died… but we don’t really know. This is meant to be King David’s tomb, but it probably isn’t. This is where some Christians believe the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven… But some Christians think it’s somewhere else.” For my scientific other half, this served to strengthen his view that religion is “made up”. But what came through for me was the power of tradition to help us connect to something bigger than ourselves. I don’t think I have ever felt the power of belonging quite so strongly as standing side by side with the women on the ladies’ side of the Western wall, or watching a boy read his Bar Mitzvah Torah as his joyous relatives celebrated his coming of age in the streets, or seeing large groups of Muslim worshippers outside the Dome of the Rock eating a shared picnic and holding out bread for us to join them. Religion connects us, and that’s not nothing.
And though the city has had a fractured past (to say the least), and though I can’t speak for those who live there, there was something astonishing about people of such extremely diverse backgrounds living so closely and so, apparently, peacefully (I asked my tour guide if the city was “safe” and she unhesitatingly said “of course!” before adding: “but I am from South America, so,” and shrugging). I’d been warned before visiting Israel to be ready to see the military walking the streets armed with terrifyingly visible weapons, but found that to be vanishingly rare. In fact, I saw this only twice, by those guarding the most sacred places in Jerusalem.
Who are the Jews who live in Jerusalem, who pray three times a day, who dress in the ultra-orthodox manner? Our guide explained that many devote their lives to studying the Torah – they don’t have what we’d consider traditional employment. The depth of the knowledge they must have of this sacred script seemed awesome to me, and reminded me that we need all focuses to make up the intellectual world: the polymath is just as crucial as the post-doc. Why is Judaism the oldest surviving world religion, asked our guide? Because of these people, who devote their lives to fully living this tradition. Without them, she posited, the religion and culture could have died out long ago. So from the Jewish quarter, I felt the value of tradition and the value of deep knowledge.
We learn more from travelling than we would have learned from a textbook not because of our own physical presence somewhere foreign, but because of the people we encounter. Our tour was made up of kind and fascinating people: a couple from Turkey and their colleague, who sold smart fridges and were passionate about their technology. An Italian couple, living in London; one of whom taught Maths, one of whom worked at the Wellcome Collection. A couple and their daughter from Hong Kong, who talked about the protests they were currently living through with great fortitude and occasional humour. And a final couple, who I didn’t manage to talk to until lunch. We had two options, lamb and falafel. I ordered the latter. “My daughter’s a vegetarian as well,” said the gentleman. I was pained to admit that I was not a vegetarian, I just loved falafel.
As we walked together after lunch, I found out he was from Athens and had studied Computer Science in Scotland in the 80s, where he was “part of this incredible revolution.” As we moved on to our next stop, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he said to me: “this is the dream of my life. It is the dream of my life to see where Jesus was buried and resurrected, and now I get to be here.”
“The dream of my life.”
His words haunt me. I feel honoured to have been there at the moment where this man accomplished his life’s dream, but I also feel deeply troubled by his words. To me, there is something infinitely admirable about having such a dream. What, I immediately worried, is the dream of my life? To run a school? To own a dog? To have a child? To read some books? To write some books?
These are ambitions; they are actions I can do, and when they happen, what will be the outcome? Will I say “well, that’s the dream of my life. Onto a new dream.” Beside this man’s enduring faith, all my dreams seemed suddenly stripped of meaning. This man’s faith taught me that we need to seek something more in life than milestones and accomplishments.
I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person, but I probably am. When I lose an eyelash, I blow on it and make a wish. For years, I wished for the next rung on the promotion ladder. (I don’t wish for that anymore.) I used to wish I would have children, but for reasons too complex for this essay I don’t wish for that anymore either. On the times that I would pray, I would wish for these two things. I would also pray for friends who were in physical or mental or spiritual pain, or I would ask for those closest to me to be protected, or, embarrassingly occasionally, I would express my gratitude for what I have.
A couple of weeks ago, my step-father’s cancer was given the “terminal” diagnosis. It was very unexpected, and deeply troubling with how rapidly “some tests, nothing to worry about” had become “weeks, maybe months.” When I got to the world’s most holy place, it struck me that the thing I would most wish for, the object I would most want to pray for, is for him. But for what? A miraculous recovery? It seemed so unlikely, so small a wish to put up against the forces of nature that are ravaging his body.
And it came to me as I stood by the Western wall, surrounded by those for whom faith forms a central part of their lives, that prayers are not wishes. That I had misunderstood. Instead, I turned my thoughts to the inner life. I prayed that my stepfather would have the mental strength to die with dignity and to overcome the suffering that was now inevitable, and that I and my family would find the strength to let him go thirty years before anyone expected that to happen. And instead of praying to become a Headteacher (thank you, God), I prayed that I would have the strength to do the job well, and the moral compass to add to the world’s good in my small sphere.
Reading Patchett’s thoughts on dogs, death, divorce and marriage, I reflected that I have written too little about too little. I have stayed in a small sphere, not seeking to contribute elsewhere. I resolved to give more time to more areas of my life, and to reflect that time in the things and in the way I wrote. Because how can I answer the question: what is the dream of my life? It will take much more time, knowledge and experience.