The House My Father Built
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. I spent the first 8 years of my life feeling safe and protected in the beautiful house my father dreamed of, designed room by room – meticulously choosing material – and finally built. I remember as clear as yesterday watching our home come to life; intricate mosaics put together piece by piece like assembling a mighty puzzle; the finishes, the furnishings. I have such happy memories of the house my father built.
I realize that besides the safety, love and acceptance I felt within these walls, it was seeing someone I greatly admired create something magnificent out of nothing, with just two key ingredients – his IMAGINATION and DETERMINATION that inspired me. Later in life, this recipe gave me the clarity and courage I needed to go after my dreams with the same perseverance.
We moved to Los Angeles when I was 8, going on 9. I was in the middle of third grade. I had a very happy childhood – the quintessential happy child, in fact. My father was 40, and my mother was 35 (not too far off from my age now) when they decided to make a new start in Beverly Hills – new home, new school, new friends… new everything. I remember feeling different at school; the girls were not the sisterly companions I was used to, not to mention the introduction to boys – coming from an all-girl school was a bit of an adjustment. I never truly felt like I fit in.
Over the years, although I had many friends (and yes, we had created a new life, filled with new memories – some happy, some sad, many wild) I never really felt like I belonged there at all. As each year passed, more of my purity and essence seemed to escape me. It was as if I had left my heart and soul in Louisiana – the safe haven the South was for me. Los Angeles represented the city of lost angels… perhaps it was because my parents were trying to find their own way as well. I had so many questions, but no answers. We were all in what seemed like a maze, trying to find our way through it. Or in my case, find an exit strategy.
When I was 19 we returned to Louisiana, it had been ten years since we left, and it was our first time back. I recall feeling sad once we had arrived in our old, beautiful neighborhood – streets lined with large wooden porches, porch swings and the wind against my face reminding me of the soft touch of my youth. We were happy here – I was happy here – happy playing in my room, alone, well, not really alone, G-d played with me. I know that sounds strange, but I have memories from a very early age of having God over for my tea parties. I took my tea with milk and sugar, and God took His black with a slice of lemon. I never felt alone. I always felt an exquisite presence.
I couldn’t remember when last I had felt settled or comforted like that. The truth was I hadn’t felt that sense of belonging since we moved, and yet here we were again, and I didn’t feel any of those warm feelings that I so longed for. I felt nostalgic for our old house, longing for the life I’d had, and the youth and innocence I felt I had lost in the move. I yearned to feel carefree and safe once again. My parents up and moved in search of happiness, but happiness isn’t something you chase, it’s something you choose. They had it, they just didn’t appreciate it, and they ended up losing everything to find what they had been searching for, but really had all along – peace of mind, security, a happy family, and enough money to be comfortable with for the rest of their lives. I felt very lost and uncertain; in fact it was that very trip when I started having my control issues with food.
Over the years I have always wondered what would have happened had we stayed there? What would have become of me? My parents? Our lives? More importantly, how much does a place really shape who we are and who we become?
To be clear, I have no regrets – I’m not that type of person – but being the curious person I am, I decided to visit again, another 17 years later with my husband and daughter, Miriam. It was no coincidence that Miriam was the exact age I was when we moved to Los Angeles.
This trip was very different from the last – a fresh perspective made for a very memorable and powerful experience. I took Michael and Miriam to my childhood home, and it was exactly as I had remembered, bar the usual wear and tear over the years (and a hurricane or two.) We even met up with the architect who had worked with my father on the house all those years ago. The wallpaper in my old bedroom and bathroom was even the same!
This time back I didn’t have those feelings of longing; my perspective had changed. This time around I saw it from a parent’s point of view, almost as if looking through my parents’ eyes. The energy of the house, despite the fact that a different family lives there, still felt so familiar and comforting. I felt content watching my daughter as she experienced the house I grew up in, her ponytail swishing back and forth as she ran through the halls, and the curiosity on her face as she listened to my stories of how I remembered it coming to life.
I was satisfied; satisfied by the life I chose and continue to choose every day. The house now held three generations of memories and desires, old and new, colliding happily together.
Rav Ashlag teaches that desire is one of the most important aspects of who we are. Rav Ashlag says: the most important gift that we have in our lives is desire. Desire is our life spirit, our drive, it is the thing that propels us into action – the greater our desire, the more we can accomplish. Rav Ashlag says that we become what we invest our desire in; where we manifest that desire is what we become. For my father, it was that house. Imagine life as a house; his desire still stands as a testament to the desire and drive he had all those years ago.
But why is it that desire wanes, as we get older? Ordinarily, we have heaps of desire in our twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. And yet somewhere after sixty the desire and vigor that once was dwindles. The body ages over time, surely it’s ‘natural’ for desire to do the same. We accept this is a natural occurrence of life, but Rav Ashlag and the kabbalists debunk this theory, providing a very and necessary fresh take on the matter. There is a way to stop this from happening.
Rav Ashlag teaches that the only reason desire shrinks is because far too often we do things to Receive for the Self Alone.
When we understand that there are two forces in this world, let’s call them Light and darkness – the kabbalists refer to it as the negative side, or Ego. This negative side desires only to receive for the Self Alone. Every single thought, word and action that we do, is a manifestation of either one of those two forces. It’s either selfish or giving. It is either from the Ego, whose desire is to receive for the Self Alone, or it comes from the Light, with the Desire to Share.
The kabbalists teach that when we manifest our desire—our essence, our soul—in something that has no continuity, no connection to the Creator and only for our own benefit, that is when desire burns out. On the flip side, when we continuously attach ourselves, and our desire to worthwhile causes for the sake of sharing and spreading love that’s when the great gift of desire remains with us – strong and powerful – no matter how old we get.
My father’s vision was completely ahead of its time, and still to this day the house stands uniquely apart from all the other homes on that street. The house my father built says so much about who he was in his youth – his desire was almost insatiable. I suppose that over the years, with his ailing health, I longed and sought to connect with the strong, vibrant man of my youth, full of life and dreams and desire. Although the house felt neglected and in need of tender loving care, one could absolutely envision it in its former glory – ridding the wear and tear of 30 years.
I draw parallels between this house and my father, feeling like his body and desire have been neglected, maybe in his case, nearly abandoned. I wish he could infuse himself with a renewed energy, making him healthier and brighter as I remember… with the fulfilled promise and potential for life as he had when he built his family a house. It’s amazing how the man and the house have mirrored each other over the years – through the storms, the loss of money and investment, and yet they both still stand – still admired, even though they no longer radiate with the potential of their youth.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION:
When we appreciate what we already have, we can expand on all of life’s blessings. Instead of chasing after what you think you want, refocus your intention and appreciate what you have, and share your experiences with me in the comment section. Remember, happiness is a choice, like Sheryl Crow said, “It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.”