Emilia Zhivotovskaya on cultivating happiness
In which I compare my monkey mind to Curious George.

What are we here for? To love, and to help others love.

The assignment was to "Select a text, any text, and any type of text, that makes you happy," and to bring it to our Rabbis Without Borders Fellows gathering, and to teach it to one person. Since this was a rabbinic gathering, and we can generally assume that everyone in the room shares a certain body of rabbinic knowledge and Torah wisdom, I decided to reach into a different quiver. I brought a beloved poem by Thomas Lux. (Find it in his book Split Horizon, Mariner Books, 1995.)


An Horatian Notion

The thing gets made, gets built, and you're the slave
who rolls the log beneath the block, then another,
then pushes the block, then pulls a log
from the rear back to the front
again and then again it goes beneath the block,
and so on.  It's how a thing gets made—not
because you're sensitive, or you get genetic-lucky,
or God says: Here's a nice family,
seven children, let's see: this one in charge
of the village dunghill, these two die of buboes, this one
Kierkegaard, this one a drooling

nincompoop, this one clerk, this one cooper.
You need to love the thing you do—birdhouse building,
painting tulips exclusively, whatever —and then
you do it
so consciously driven
by your unconscious
that the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own.  Inspiration, the donnée,

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Grow up!  Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded
toward the earth's core.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work.

—Thomas Lux

For me, the heart of this poem is these three lines: "You make the thing because you love the thing / and you love the thing because someone else loved it / enough to make you love it."

When I first fell in love with this poem, I was pursuing an MFA at Bennington. I loved Lux's articulation that creativity takes work. There's a popular misconception that art, including poetry, is purely a "gift" from beyond. That it just happens like magic for people who are lucky. I'll grant you that there's something occasionally ineffable about art, and that it can impact us like a lightning bolt -- but I'm firmly in the camp which says that poetry, like any art, is also a craft.

These days I relate to this poem both as a poet, and as a rabbi. Here's what I hear Lux saying to me in this poem now: find the work that you love, and do it. And know that the reason you love it is because someone else loved it enough to open it up for you. And know that your job is to inspire someone else to love it -- or to love something else; but to love that thing enough to in turn transmit the love to someone else.

I write poems because I love poems; I love poems because someone else loved them enough to make me love them.

I teach Torah because I love Torah; I love Torah because someone else loved Torah enough to make me love it.

Maybe your art is cooking. You make beautiful meals -- because someone else loved cooking enough to cook a beautiful meal for you, to inspire you. Or, as the poem says, maybe your art is birdhouse building or painting tulips. Whatever it is that you love: you love it because someone else opened it up for you. And because you love it, you can open it up (and open up the whole process of having-something-opened-up) for someone else in turn.

"It's how a thing gets made," writes Lux. "[N]ot / because you're sensitive, or you get genetic lucky[.]" Not because of some magical inspiration from on high, "a bolt of fire / down the arm that makes the art." Making art, being creative, seeking meaning, doing work one feels "called" to do -- these aren't only open to people who are special, people who get inspiration, people who are "religious." This is open to all of us. More: I think it's incumbent on all of us.

The work we do in the world happens because we dedicate ourselves to doing it. It's not a matter of God pulling the strings from on high. Our work in the world is to find a thing we love -- poetry, Torah, parenting, carpentry, whatever that thing is for you -- and to do it, and to share the work and the love with someone else. When we find what we love and share it with others, we inspire them to find what they love and share that in turn.

That's what grounds us in this life, our hearts "like a tent peg pounded toward the earth's core." That's what allows us to soar, our hearts burning "through the ionosphere."

And with that, we go to work. Or, in the language of Jewish tradition, "all the rest is commentary: go and learn."

Find people who love something enough to make you love it. Then teach others to love things as you've been fortunate enough to be taught how to do. That's what we're here for. And that's why this is a text about happiness, for me. I'm a rabbi because I love Judaism, I love Torah, and I love God. I love those things because someone else loved them enough to make me love them -- and now I get to go to work and help other people love them, too.