I believe in difference. Sameness, the known, the familiar, are pleasant enough. I need my fix of them. But it’s my attraction to Difference, my promise to seek her out that will allow me to approach the edge. The edge is where I feel most alive, where I can receive the blessing in Bob Dylan’s 1974 song without shame or cynicism: ‘May you stay forever young.’
Of course I didn’t start out on such friendly terms with Difference. Like many children, I tended towards the conservative, the ritualistic: Mommy, I want to hear the exact same story as last night.
My grandmother came from far away, having grown up with another language, another culture, a family she would never see again, as it turned out. She had blue eyes glinting behind silver-framed eyeglasses and soft, fine wrinkled skin. She was anxious to learn new things, to be ‘modren.’ ‘Nanny’, I am told I once said, ‘you don’t have to be modern; old fashioned is good.’
Of course I grew up, and Nanny died at eighty looking steadfastly forward almost to the very end. By that time I was a young doctor, had talked to her alongside the hospital bed about her cancer. The tumor, I said, was the reason she couldn’t eat and move on into the future. It wasn’t that she needed to try harder to stay current.
I had seen enough people die by then to have learned that aloneness seemed worse than death, to appreciate that Nanny’s way of being alive until she wasn’t, worked better than most: she would stay up-to-date with the living, allowing the people she’d loved and lost to rest somewhere inside without monopolizing her attention. Like all angels, she radiated: ‘Fear not.’
So when did Difference start to grow on me? It had taken root as most attractions do, gradually, under ground, as I grew tired of my own wish for safety, for the insular buffering of black-and-white dicta that held up poorly over time. Glimpses of how many ways there are to make a life in the world, stolen from people or books, helped. So did romance. But the clincher was having a child, then children, who turned out to be startlingly, wonderfully different – from each other, from their parents, indeed from anyone else on the planet.
I work as a psychiatrist in a university-based health service where every year there is an influx of students from across the globe. Every time I listen to a young person talk about her family, their particular way of holding on or letting go, I am struck by how many ways there are to raise a child and send him off into the world. I think of how much courage it takes as a parent to consign oneself to a place on the sidelines, not in the ring.
I believe Difference is a powerful teacher, often wise. I want to listen. I will have never heard it all.
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