When I was 14 or 15, my best friend at the time and I decided to take a bunch of bread and throw it in the East River for the Jewish New Year. This is a custom on the first day of Rosh Hashannah, in which Jews leave synagogue, go to a river, reach into their pockets for all the bread crumbs that just happen to be there, and “throw away” their “sins.” Then, they have 10 days to repent before Yom Kippur comes along. My friend and I didn’t complete our ritual tied to any temple-going or religious service, but we did stand on the furthest limit of the promenade at 81st and East End and say, “This was the worst year of our lives.”
Now, we were 15 or so, which is basically synonymous with being melodramatic morons, but I think we were actually onto something. We swore, also, as we tossed our bread into the filthy river, that there would never be a year as bad as this one. The details are fuzzy for me, but if it’s the year I’m thinking of, it was a pretty bad year.
My parents had decided after two years of separation, to get a real divorce. I was resistant to visiting my father at his new house, my mother was distraught, and when my brother home, the two of them would fight with such fervour and volume that I felt it was impossible to do anything else. There was the usual teenage stuff, too, and it came together to make me feel like everything had fallen apart, but especially me. The previous year – my parents separated – I’d held it together like a pro. All the notes in my yearbook say something along the lines of, “I love how you are the most cheerful person ever!” It was a role I was committed to, and the only way I knew how to get through the day.
But in the year before my friend and I threw the bread in the river, I had one day started crying spontaneously in homeroom, with a cluster of shocked girls around me, murmuring, “we didn’t know anything was wrong!” So it wasn’t so much “the worst year ever” as it was “the year I realized everything was not going to be ‘ok!’”
But maybe, it occurred to me years later, those are the same thing.
In fact, my friend and I both had many bad, arguably worse, years ahead of us. We both had a lot of “problems.” One of the worst nights of my life would come 8 years later, when this same friend would come to visit me in New Hampshire at a boarding school where I was a teacher. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor with her as she adamantly told me, “If you don’t get your shit together, people will stop trying to help you. They will stop caring about you. Everyone will stop loving you.” I think we may have argued till dawn, when she got on a train and left. We didn’t speak for 3 years, until she reached out for the Jewish New Year, and with an invite to her wedding.
Despite all these challenges in life – all these “bad” years – I never thought to use the phrase “worst” until another 8 years had passed, and a dear friend of mine lost her mother. She mentioned that another friend of hers who’d lost a parent had said to her, “This will be the worst year of our lives.”
“But it won’t,” my friend told me grimly. “More people are going to die. This isn’t the worst, it’s just the beginning.”
I reflected on this heavily, perhaps because up until this moment, my friend, like me in 8th grade, was one of the most cheerful people I know. Yet I knew, based on intuition and experience, that she was right: The rest of our lives would be filled with more bad things, not fewer. I worried about how it would change her, how it changed all of us.
I wondered how could we possibly continue to find hope in life? How could we plow forward with the belief that it was going to keep getting more beautiful, when we knew deep down inside that it was going to get worse? When we knew that the future was implicitly laden with death, loss, heartbreak and distance?
As I watched my friend over the next year start recover from the death of her mother, I started to understand. The first important thing I realized is that “cheerful” and “joyful” are not the same thing. My friend was not her cheerful self, but even in those dark times, we saw glimpses of her joy.
And one day, almost a year later, she came
to visit me and in my kitchen, I eagerly played some my new favorite songs for her. She loved them. We both started dancing on the tile.
“Oh my god I love it!” She shrieked as her pony tail bounced. “I can’t wait to learn all the words!”
I couldn’t help but freeze; virtually tased by the exuberance of her words. She was back, and she was back with more joy than ever. My heart broke and exploded at the same time, because I had secretly been worried that this day would never come.
And because I never realized that pushing out cheerfulness could make room for joyfulness. And that the worst year of our lives is not about what happens, it’s about how much (or little) strength we can find to cope with it.
At 15, you have no life skills. You are unprepared. You are caught off guard. You still don’t realize how bad things are going to be, and so you resist all the things that are happening to you. Instead of coping, you are desperately wishing things would be magically different. You are probably having the worst year of your life, because you haven’t yet learned to make the magic yourself.
Even so, you’ll go through the same kind of lows a few more times in your life, when the world behaves badly in a way you didn’t expect. You’ll find yourself at 6:55am wondering if you will be able to stop crying for long enough at least to get yourself to work. You’ll have panic attacks while you’re there, so bad that you start seeing black spots.
But if you’re lucky, you’ll have an old friend from home who will coach you – from 3,000 miles away – through making evening plans. She’ll suggest talking to another old friend, and he will be more than happy to cancel his plans to get a drink with you.
He will let you make small talk with one eyebrow raised and then he will hear you for real. At some point, thoughtfully, he will tell you that he has just spoken to your other old friend, the one who threw bread crumbs in the river with you to send off the worst year of your life. She’s getting a divorce, and she has advice he thinks will help you.
“That phrase ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him’ is a lie. It’s one or the other. And it’s probably ‘can’t live with him.”
It won’t be the content of the advice that resonates with you. It will be the love, the friendship and most of all the distance that these words – these uncannily apt words – traveled to get to you.
And you will realize that through the years and their mishaps, you have woven a net that catches you. It makes you less afraid to stumble, and gives you the confidence to land. But best of all, you will realize that you are lucky, because you feel real joy in the moment when that net catches your fall and flings you back into the air.