How do we live in the present moment if we can’t let go of the past?

Looking at loss through a Jewish lens


Stress is caused by wanting the present moment to be different from what it is.

Go ahead, read that sentence again.  I’ll wait.

We wish someone weren’t ill, the traffic would move faster, our boss would be less exacting.  We might wish to be doing something else entirely.

It’s so easy to be pulled away from the present moment, reminiscing about past experiences and either longing for their return or unnecessarily re-experiencing a trauma.  Oppositely, we spend time anticipating the future and conjuring up all sorts of imaginary scenarios that may never come to be.   But “the now” is all we really have.  We have this very moment to shape or to simply notice what is.  And then it’s gone.  We let it pass in order to welcome a new present moment.

I can’t even guess how many times in the last few weeks I have wished that our house were still exactly as it was pre-storm.  And even now, I still halfway believe that living in this apartment is temporary and we will be going back home in only a matter of time.  I think it will only be when I can let go of our house that I will be able to “move on.”  I don’t know how to do that yet, though writing about it here helps me a great deal.

A friend advised me, after reading yesterday’s post, to liken this grieving process to the unexpected death of a loved one.  First come shock, followed by denial, longing that it weren’t true and that the person were still with you.  I am stuck in this phase right now.  I suppose eventually it will become easier to accept what has happened, let it go, and be content with good memories, especially as new experiences come.

As an empath, I sometimes have trouble separating myself from the narrative of a book or a movie.  I lose my present surroundings and truly feel that I am in the world of the story.  It seems as if it’s happening to me.  It can be emotionally difficult for me (and for those who live with me).  When I was woken up that recent August morning to the reality of water slowly seeping into our house, I immediately recognized the same feeling of internal panic as I’d experienced in reading books about war or survival or watching any movie’s chase scene… “Mayday, mayday… the worst is here… instant action needed… life forever changing right now… you only have moments… go!”

It’s the surprise and absolute shock of this situation that makes it difficult because there was no time to mentally or emotionally prepare ourselves for such a large change.  It’s not like we methodically sorted and carefully packed each room and then put our house on the market, straightening up every time there was a showing.  We had no 60-day wait to close, nor a thoughtful search for a new home.  In this situation, our intentions had nothing to do with the change brought upon us so suddenly.

I’m hung up on this thought that I want to go home. I want to walk the 3 blocks home from school with my Sweet Girl, carrying her backpack and listening to stories about her day. I want to unlock the door that sometimes needs a little extra push, and start preparing dinner while SG does her homework at the kitchen table, getting her little finger prints on the glass each time and almost always forgetting to put away a pencil or a folder. I want to hear the mailbox lid make its familiar clunk when our quirky mailman, Bruce, drops in the day’s letters.  I want to sit in our sunroom and watch the rain as I write this.  These moments were all perfectly imperfect.

* * * * *

There have been many times in history that people have had to quickly pack up a few belongings and leave their home, possibly forever.  There are several recent books published about the Underground Railroad, describing the risks people took to gain freedom and escape persecution.  The current Syrian refugee crisis is another unfortunate example.

I often think of the multitude of Jews who, not very long ago, were woken in the night by SS soldiers and forced to leave their homes in a matter of minutes with whatever they could carry.  Their homes were overtaken and could not be reclaimed after the war.  I also often ponder the Passover story many times a year.  When I was a child, my grandfather would lead the kids around his house with a sack over his shoulder, enacting the story as if we personally were escaping from Egypt and a life of slavery.  And now, each year, at some point during our Passover seder, we go around the table and we each mention what we would take with us if we had to leave our homes and lives behind.  It evokes humorous responses from those under 5 years of age, but consistent answers from everyone else.  We would take our loved ones, our photo albums, and sometimes something that belonged to a family member who is no longer with us.  We are hanging on to a collective memory.

Exile is a theme that repeats itself often in the Torah.  Adam and Eve must leave the Garden of Eden.  Moses spent all his life in exile.  Then there were the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, all the way up to the Nazis, who used violence to drive the Jewish people from their lands.  Jews have been exiled from England, Spain, France, Italy, Vienna, Russia, Germany.  (One source cites 109 countries we have been kicked out of, not that there’s a contest we’re trying to win.)

Such blind hatred of one people or another has never made any sense to me.  When I heard Brene Brown speak a couple weeks ago at the launch of her book tour, she described it with the metaphor of a circle.  The ability to imagine any one group of people as not fitting in or not belonging inside the circle is what allows a mental shift to take place.  You somehow symbolically place any group you want outside the circle of inclusion, normalcy, and “everyone else” and don’t allow yourself the mental ability to redraw the circle.  It’s a short thought experiment but a very dangerous tactic.  It’s simple to conclude that if they aren’t inside the circle as we are, they must not be human.

I can only imagine what it must have been like during the destruction of the Second Temple.  First, the dedication to fight for what you most treasure, along with the trauma of failing and watching its destruction.  Then either having to flee from all you know or perhaps being able to walk through the rubble and wonder how it could all change so suddenly.

The Jewish People are resilient.  Time after time, country after country, we have taken our traditions and started again.  Worship and routine may have altered, but the community ideals remained and people kept their faith and found new ways to adapt.  The quicker they were able to adapt to change, the more their new communities flourished.

I feel gratitude for the stories of our shared past.  If an entire People can undergo this experience of sudden exile over and over and over again, I can do it too.

The random destruction in the path of Harvey’s waters is no comparison to purposeful hatred and violence.  In fact, we could even say that the flood waters called forth countless people to reach beyond themselves to engage in helpful actions and community service.  In Jewish tradition, this is called tzedakah.  It’s not a choice; it’s simply what we do.  It’s not “charity,” but creating “justice” and doing what is right. It is a moral obligation to reach beyond our own needs and care for our fellow brothers and sisters.  More than only money, we give of ourselves with our compassion and our heartfelt recognition that the other person needs something to “make it right again.”

Throughout the time of slavery before the American Civil War, during the Holocaust, and most likely in every instance in human history where there has been unfair oppression of anyone, there were many individuals who stood up to “do the right thing” and helped despite the certainty that they would be severely punished for it.  But reading about it in a history book and witnessing tzedakah in action (and what’s more, being a recipient of it) are completely different.

As I sat in synagogue this year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it struck me that almost the entire service reminds us to focus on our actions.  We ask God for help, we are grateful for our lives, and we praise God for many things, but the prime focus of these Holy Days is on our free will, our human hearts and minds that make choices every single day. Did we stand up to injustice? Did we welcome the stranger into our home or our conversation? What do we do, what actions do we carry out, with the gifts we have been given? We read that what will come in the year ahead directly corresponds to our actions.  We humbly recognize that we are not perfect.  Therefore, we spend serious time remembering our failings of the past year and searching for ways we can move into the future having learned from those mistakes.

The Jewish People (and this is the case for many cultures and religions) frequently and purposely invoke our collective history as a lesson in how to live.  We remember the stories of generations before us because their experiences teach us strength, wisdom, humility, faith, and they help us to shape our values today.  We are a People with a long collective memory, often seeking lessons and meaning from our past.  Interestingly, given our track record, we don’t tend to look toward the future much, nor do we all agree about what that will look like, because our focus is on this moment right now. The concept of tzedakah reminds us that there is much to do right here, right now.

The blessings of my present situation are almost too many to count.  Yes, we had a forced exile of a sort in a panicked situation, but we had no violence or hatred.  It was unexpected, but we now have the luxury of peace and healing and there is no rush to move forward until we are ready to. And unlike the historical examples above, we had overwhelming love and support in the days following the storm and we still do now.  We can return to our destroyed house as many times as we want to look around and to try to make sense of what has happened.  This grief is not for the loss of a unique soul and their treasured life, thank God, but for a collection of inanimate walls and floors.  How’s that for perspective?

We really did choose what we said we would, having to rush out at the last moment: my grandma’s hand-stitched Sabbath tablecloth, my great grandmother’s rolling pin, photo albums and meaningful artwork, SG’s blanket, a little food for the journey.  It’s reassuring to know that those annual hypothetical answers were rooted in truth.

We appreciate those moments that give life meaning.  We notice the budding leaves in springtime and the first orange leaf in fall.  We savor another birthday as an opportunity to acknowledge growth and life experiences and to attempt to begin a cycle anew. We decide how to shape our days, our seasons, our life, as if time were a bucket and we could toss in whatever our hearts desire.  These special moments could take place at any address in the whole world.  It is not where they take place, but simply that they do. No matter how we travel, we don’t ever have to leave them behind.

Just as we are symbolically broken open during these holy days and we stand before God in judgment solely for our actions, good and bad, we can mentally crack open our home and symbolically extract the memories of the most important actions and leave the rest behind.

I emerge from these days of reflection with the intention of appreciating the dwelling we had, which provided shelter for the three of us to grow and to share experiences together.  I recognize that it was simply a backdrop for our memories, not the memories themselves. I will adjust over time to accept the reality that we are not going to be living in the exact same house with the same furniture and walls and layout. We are already making new memories within other walls.  I will work on letting it go.

We look to the stories of the past for meaning and we honor those experiences, but we focus not on the feelings of pain or loss they evoke but on what we have collectively gained from each experience, what lessons and memories we choose to carry forward.  It is only by looking to the past that we gain the perspective required to shift our perception of the present.

Perhaps I am not really stuck in the denial stage of losing the house.  Maybe I am re-experiencing the shock of the storm itself and begrudging the effort it will take to start anew.  In that case, I will recognize and honor those emotions and give them the space within to do whatever it is that emotions do before they go on their merry way.  (This may require the purchase of some art supplies.) And I will do this keeping in mind that this may be difficult, but it is nothing like the horrors in the history books.

As we begin to think about designing a new home, I aim to make choices that intentionally create a space for our treasured memories of the past, our blessings in the present, and our (hopefully) bright future.  It will be acknowledged as the container for bedtime stories and birthday parties, but those moments will never be attached to any physical structure.  What sustains us will always be what we carry within us.

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2 Responses to How do we live in the present moment if we can’t let go of the past?

  1. Linda Cohen says:


    Wow to read your words and your experience through Harvey is unbelievable and overwhelming and also beautiful and uplifting. As with every part of grief, this too shall pass. Sending you love and hugs and if there is anything else physical that I can send you please ask. Not even sure what someone would need. Please enlighten me. I’d love to make a mitzvah care package. May this new year bring you health, happiness and ease. Linda

  2. Naomi, I read this the first day it went up…it was late at night. I so taken with your writing and your acceptance and your sorting and figuring it all out so soon. I wrote you right back, a long and detailed comment to share with you how unique, loving and accepting you are. How you are trying to piece your life back together one day at a time…and there was lots more. I kept trying to put myself in your place. I know how hard you and Brian worked on your lovely house most recently and now, if I’m reading this right, it is gone. My heart aches for you…and for other in your situation. I know I couldn’t be as strong as you are or as hopeful. I think it would drag me down daily…but maybe not. Maybe we can’t know who we are to our core until we are tested so harshly. That comment somehow , got lost in outer space. I hit something wrong…I know what it was…it was that math equation and bingo…gone. That frustrating me so much, it took me a week to get back here. LOL

    So I guess what I really want to say is you inspire me. You inspire me to let the small stuff go…to live in the moment and to know there are just some things in life we have no control over. When that happens, sort it out and move on, knowing that you are never alone. I believe a strong faith helps also. You go girl. I’m watching your progress and I read every word you write. You and my friends from St. Maarten are survivors. I’m glad I’m on your team. And give S. G. and extra hug tomorrow (she must be in bed by now)…you don’t have to tell her why, just do it…
    Thinking of you and yours and wishing you sunshine and moonbeams…as you move forward…xoxo

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