Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Past Haunts

I left Indiana and Purdue University in 2008, once I finished my PhD. I was 30 years old, and I was so happy to be going home to California after five years in the shadow of cornfields, tornadoes, and loves lost, begun, and discarded. Earlier this week, after seven years, I returned to Indiana for the first time for a conference on the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas--an annual conference that my friends and I began here at Purdue ten years ago, and which has flourished ever since. We came home for our tenth anniversary.

Nostalgia always brings us home.

Coming "home" is such a complex thing. We come happily, expectant, but we also cannot help but remember the conflicts and violences that spattered themselves across our lives. This afternoon I attended a talk by a friend and colleague who referenced the work of Edward Casey--particularly his work that deals with memory and its connection to place. I couldn't help but think of this place, where I sit now. I was 26 when I first left California to start graduate school--young, unaware, mistakenly married. There were others like me--those who had married young, before we had become who we were meant to be. The rate at which we--poets, writers, thinkers, teachers--all transformed into our selves was staggering. Many of us left someone behind in that transformation. The ones left behind lost their place in our new world. It was liberating, yes, but it was also not without the infinite sadness that always accompanies such a moving on, such a splintering. I'm so sorry. Splitting at the root aches indefinitely, even when it is necessary in order for growth to begin.

I left and found love in this place. Here, I discovered that some love is little more than obsession--intoxicating, often, but toxic always. In this place, I learned that you can love and hate someone simultaneously. Then I found love again while anchored to this place, only to uncover duplicity and betrayal.

Of course I've never forgotten any of this. It's not as if I'm remembering it for the first time, now that I'm back here briefly. But there's something about place, and how it affects the way memory materializes, the way it touches us. We leave a place, and put down roots elsewhere--we become skinned of memory. And then if we are wise or foolish enough to return to that place, to the site of trauma, it burns as the memories materialize.

But I've never minded the fire. The loves found and lost while I was here were all part of being in transit. Looking back on those years from this point in time, from a position of authentic love and happiness, is uncanny, though. It's hard to reconcile my many lives, the many drafts of myself. My impulse is to find meaning in the current shape of my memories, but it always drowns in meaningless and transgressive cliche: it all happened for a reason, it made me who I am, I am full of regret, I have no regrets, it allowed me to appreciate who I am and what I have now.

There is no meaning in these memories; I simply bear witness to them.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

My Grandmother

Her body is so slight now at 80 pounds. Bones pushing through paper skin. How is it that her eyes have grown so large while her body and mind devolve? One wonders what she sees with those once beautiful eyes, now void, desperate. Perhaps one prefers not to know. Perhaps I prefer not to know. Does she see us for who we really are? It's in all the best literature: the madwoman who sees everything, and prophesies, foretells our future. And, it's true, I think, as I stare brazenly at my grandmother: her body, memory removed and reconfigured, tells my future. At least that's what I'm afraid of--that I am seeing her the way I will one day be seen. My mother, though--her fear sinks a layer deeper into her than mine does. I see that, even though she doesn't say it.

If my grandmother's the madwoman I've found in so many narratives, I want to know what it is that she knows. Does she know that I told myself I wouldn't go see her again after the last time? Does she know how brilliantly the shame bloomed inside of me when I admitted to myself that I didn't want to go back? That I didn't want her to mistake my hand for a piece of chocolate again? That I didn't want the expression of horror, etched as deep as the bones in my face, to scare her? I remember the days right before she was taken to a home. Do we really dare to call such a place a home? My grandfather, hip shattered, lay in the hospital, and she, his wife, wandered aimlessly around my parents' home.

Daddy? Where did Daddy go?

She kept asking that question, tugging on the sleeves and pant legs of anyone close enough, fiddling anxiously with the buttons on her holiday flannel pajamas. When the wandering became too much for us, we made her sit in a wheelchair. We felt guilty. We made excuses. My brother and I broke into a fit of hysterical laughter after looking for ways to entertain her, and finally settling on a ridiculous impromptu dance routine. Grandma, do you like our dance? Laughter always hides something. Some people, some families, are better at the hiding part than others are. Horror, in this case, is what we hide.

She hasn't known us for some time now. But that night, the night we danced our ridiculous dance for her, she reached for my hand and squeezed it with her little claw-like hands and said, suddenly: don't forget about me, don't forget about me. As if she'd had the briefest moment of clarity, as if she'd caught a glimpse of what was happening. The shame bloomed inside again, because I realized that I want to forget.

He'll be back, we'd say, when she asked for "daddy" hundreds of times, over and over and over and over. Don't worry. The false reassurances we often give young children coming back to haunt us in old age, rounding out our sharp little lives in ways we'd never considered. We would like to protect her--from what we have no idea.

I keep waiting for that call, my grandfather says, a few months later as he recovers from his fall in my parents' home, while my grandmother becomes smaller and smaller in a home that isn't her own. And suddenly I can't decide which breaks my heart into more pieces: my grandmother, with her memories jumbled and fragmented; or my grandfather, severed from the woman with whom he has spent his entire adult life, his memory and mind intact enough to feel pain and fear and guilt and the threat of complete loss.

And I think to myself, I spent a good portion of my life waiting for those calls--expecting them at every turn. My mother? My father? One of my brothers or my sister? What foolishness. How vile the memory of such fears becomes when I see what it means to really wait for that call. When abstract fears become known.

My mother, then. I feel tightness in my chest when I imagine what she is experiencing, as she cares for her elderly father and his very sad heart, and also begins to grieve for a mother who is simultaneously alive and dead. This is what makes dementia and diseases of the mind so horrifying: loved ones are necessarily in a constant state of mourning. We face the loss every day that we stare into blank eyes. It faces us, taunts us. But death is yet to come so we have nothing to bury. We aren't allowed to move on just yet. We simply mourn daily; it becomes our most careful routine. I've been watching my mother mourn for quite some time now--this while she is pulled by other looming losses and struggles having nothing to do with my grandmother. Why must the universe unload on us all at once? There is no divine plan. This is life. This is our life.

I'm thinking of all this, a few days into Passover, and I realize that the sea doesn't always part. We don't always move through the water without drowning. Some of us will make it--we swim hard, or we float miraculously. But others will drown.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

One More Year

Guilt is fashioned in so many forms. No one is immune to it, of course. I often suspect that those who talk most about living "guilt-free" are the ones who feel most consistently culpable.

I keep staring at this slowly sinking pit in the top of my hand, where my bone has disintegrated like quick sand. And I feel guilty. I feel guilty for being the type of person who would spend as much time as I have this past month googling images of wildly expensive high-top sneakers. I can't stop running my fingers over the hole in my hand, thinking of how I joked about it, laughing nervously at first, and then hysterically to myself. The embarrassment of jokes falling flat.

I've never seen anything like this. That's what the endocrinologist said. And the look on his face. . .

I'm fine--nothing more than the universe offering me another opportunity to be pointlessly afraid. Useless fear. But I thought: what if I wasn't okay? What if the doctor's suspicions grew long spindly legs and walked right into my reality?

The hole in my hand: lacuna. And suddenly the black hole renders everything clear. It's hard to know what's important on some days. I often feel that living in Los Angeles is one of the most difficult--if thrilling--endeavors. Everything is opaque here.

But what if I wasn't okay?

The answer is made simple via the space in my hand. I inevitably started to consider worst-case scenarios. One year. That's it, give or take a few weeks. What would I do? And this is where the high-top sneakers came bounding in. They were immediately the source of my guilt, a symbol of my shallowness. I have thought incessantly about high-top sneakers--in between agonizing about European anti-Semitism and suppressing anxiety about unfinished essays--while trying to fall asleep on some nights.

My fingers, dipping down into the hole in my hand. And I realize how much time and energy I waste on things that are meaningless, all while complaining that I don't have the time to pursue what matters most. What if I had only one year--how would I live? What parts of my life would I discard or abandon? Would I write? Would I teach? It's an ideal exercise in deciphering what matters most.

I don't know if I would keep teaching. Maybe just in small doses. I do know that I would finish my "it's nearly finished" book on the midrashic impulse in art and literature. I didn't have to think twice about that. I also know that I would write letters to my son every day. I would write love letters to my husband too. I would travel. I would linger more carefully in front of my favorite paintings. I would drink just as much wine, but I would do it with the friends and family I love, rather than alone and in front of the blank screen of a computer.

I would not google high-top sneakers. Or any other sneakers. It wouldn't even occur to me.

I suppose there's no reason why I can't behave as if there's just one more year.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Born to Fear

I keep coming back to fear.

Teaching post-9/11 fiction puts me in a position to discover fear written all over the face of literature and to think about why that is. E.L. Doctorow once said that doubt is the greatest stabilizer of humanity, and I loved that. But if doubt is what stabilizes us, it must be fear that destabilizes.

Until a few years ago, fear was the catalyst for most decisions I made. It was the internal mechanism that became the shaper of some of the most intricate parts of my identity. School, career, fashion, and even relationship choices were little more than sediment rising to the top of my constant trepidation. From dyeing my blonde hair brown when I interviewed at an Ivy League institution because I feared my intellectual capacity would be measured by the shade of my locks, to pressing my hand to the outside of each airplane I boarded while saying a quick prayer for God's protection over the plane--my distress over things I could never possibly control became the common denominator for nearly every life decision made. I consistently settled into relationships where I was certain that I loved my partner less than he loved me, thereby mitigating the fear of losing someone I could not live without.

It takes many years to realize that each decision made with fear slices away pieces of one's life. Living without fear, on the other hand, is liberating. Of course I'm not the first to recognize this. But the first time I felt it, it was like the world had come undone in a way that made it mine.

They can all go fuck themselves.

And suddenly I was me, perhaps for the first time. I've lived, over the last so many years, fearlessly for the most part. My decisions have been rooted in the part of me that is brazen and undisguised. But the past year a new kind of fear has taken root. Every other breath I take is cut short by a sensation of fear that has become my new normal.

No one told me it was going to be like this.

This: being a mother. The sensation of fierce and primal love for my son. The fear that an imperfect world might put its claws into him. The fear that I could one day lose him. The persistent threat of his absence. The fear is new and untapped. Vigorous. It reveals itself in tears in some moments. I could not have known the vulnerability that would necessarily accompany the moments, days, and years following childbirth. A woman's strongest moment gives birth to her deepest vulnerabilities.

Is this what my mother felt each time she gave birth? Vulnerabilities multiplying exponentially? 

And I cannot help thinking: I was so strong before this. I could afford to be reckless. I have much to learn about being a mother. But the biggest challenge, I suspect, will be to protect my son from my trepidation. Fear is learned. We pass it down to each subsequent generation, a most resilient heirloom. As much as it hurts, I'd like to keep this for myself. My son, empty-handed in this regard--it would give me joy.

*Image Above: Kandinsky, "Dunaberg" (1909)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A Culture of Fear: On Women and Pregnancy

My post on women, pregnancy, and a culture of fear can be found here (at The Forward's Sisterhood blog).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Women, the Exodus, and

Just in time for Pesach, here's my piece on women, the Exodus, and over at The Forward's Sisterhood blog.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sex and Jews

I wrote a short piece over at The Forward on the launch of and the question of whether diasporic Jews have absorbed a Christian understanding of sex. Read it here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Women and the Pregnant Body

Check out my latest post over at The Forward (Sisterhood blog):

These days, news of a woman’s pregnancy elicits all sorts of shameless demands from people with voyeuristic drives to see her naked stomach. I should know; I’m pregnant...

Read more:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No Apologies

I wrote a Yom Kippur piece for the Sisterhood blog over at The Forward a few days ago--it's about women apologizing too much, and often for things about which they don't need to be sorry. Yesterday morning I found myself doing exactly what I warn against in this piece. I was paying for some candy at an amazing new candy store at The Grove in Los Angeles. I had already given my debit card to the cashier so I began to search for something else in my wallet, only to look up a few second later and realize that the cashier had been holding my card out to me. "Oh, I'm so sorry," I said. "You're not forgiven," she replied, with a look of feigned contempt, "because that is a totally egregious error." I laughed to myself,  thinking about my piece about refraining from squandering apologies, which had been posted earlier the same day. "You know," I said, "I'm really not sorry."

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Name Me

Choosing novels to take on vacation is an anxiety-inducing exercise. The night before a recent trip to French Polynesia, I stared at my bookshelves, agonizing over which novels to bring along in addition to a giant stack of unread issues of The New Yorker, Commentary, and The New Republic (and, I confess, an unsubscribed to issue of Vanity Fair). I ended up with these: Janette Turner Hospital's Orpheus Lost, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (through which I had previously only skimmed), John Updike's The Terrorist, and Nathan Englander's What we Talk about When we Talk about Anne Frank. I really had no desire to read the Updike, but since I've been teaching post-9/11 fiction I felt that I should at least take it along for the ride. A Franzen hardcover started out in the pile, but given the immense weight and size of his books, it was thrown aside minutes before the taxi arrived to take us to the airport.

I didn't think much about the fact that, armed with multiple novels about terrorism, I was getting ready to board an 8-hour flight. And I'll I'm going to say is that by the end of my trip I was sick of reading about terrorism. (And I couldn't, just couldn't, finish that awful Updike.)

Orpheus Lost proved to be a gift: one of my new favorite novels, the kind that leaves you longing and makes you sad once you finish because there's no more to read (and especially if you're stranded in paradise and all you've got left is Updike). There's so much to say about this novel, and this writer, but I keep thinking about one idea in particular:

"Names are always a problem . . . They're never you. They're baggage from your parents."

Of course this is likely much more true in some circumstances than in others. I suspect there are people who are quite able to choose names for their children based solely on sound, rhythm, alliteration. Surely not everyone considers the meanings or histories or connotations of names. But even then the parents' choice conveys something about their needs, desires, preferences, or histories. A name chosen simply because it was on a list of most popular names for a given year says just as much about the parent as does a name that is somehow rare, unique, or laden with symbolic meaning, doesn't it?

We are born violently and into a position of responsibility: to bear our parents' burdens. We bear witness to their wounds from birth: this is our origin.

As I consider names for my own soon-to-be son, I feel the burden, of course, and I contemplate how I might relieve him of having to carry anything of mine. And I don't know how to name someone I have never seen or met--someone of whom I have no knowledge, other than what I imagine. But this is the way things are done. We imagine our children and who they will become, and we name them accordingly. We imagine them in our image, and because of this they inevitably carry our desires within them.

But I would be dishonest to suggest that I don't experience a modicum of pleasure when I imagine my little son carrying a certain brand of burden: the one that teaches us to struggle and to discover delight in the struggle, the kind that teaches us to care for others, especially those who are different from us. I know that I carry a few of my parents' burdens and that they have made me who I am. I can only hope that my own child similarly delights in the burdens he will help me carry.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Border Crossings

Check out my review essay in The New Republic:

WE ARE A CULTURE obsessed with memory. More precisely, we have a tendency to fixate on the memories of others—collective memories that both are and are not ours, imagining ourselves to be the rightful heirs of all manner of trauma, narrative, ritual, and conquest passed down to us through the movement of history. We claim possession over these memories. The American impulse toward ownership leaves not even the so-called sacred geography of memory untouched. READ MORE...

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"She Washed My Hair": Feeling loss as love

One of the greatest rewards of having spent seven years in graduate school is seeing some of my former peers and close friends publish extraordinary work. This past week Leslie St. John published a little book of poems called Beauty Like a Rope: it has already become dear to my heart. The poems are so delicately and beautifully crafted. And they hurt. I've always loved the rare poem that causes me to ache in some way. I hope we see more and more from Leslie.

One poem, "She Washed My Hair," gives an autobiographical account of a traumatic moment in the poet's life. Years ago her eye was hit by a cd tossed into the crowd at a concert. She ultimately lost the eye and now wears a prosthetic (though it's virtually impossible to discern this now; Leslie is quite lovely). But the poem captures the beginning of her healing process, and toward the end describes an intimate moment between the poet and her mother:

after Mom raised my lid to drop medicine,
she washed my hair,

untangling rusted screw curls, not with force
as she had after dance recitals
and ice skating competitions, but with care--

a jeweler unknotting a thin gold chain
rubbing each kink smooth.

Her small hand supported my head
dangling from the foot of the bed,
the other tipping an iced tea pitcher

of water to rinse the shampoo.
So, how to tell her now--

twelve years, two states, one husband,
and three prosthetic eyes later--
she made me feel even this loss as love?

To feel the loss as love. Washing someone's hair, allowing someone to wash one's hair: it's is a peculiar kind of intimacy. And the intimacy is so much more complex when it takes place between a mother and a daughter.

My own mother, one day last week, told me a story about washing her own mother's hair. My grandmother has Alzheimer's disease, and it goes without saying that this condition is one of the most barbaric afflictions. The way it wraps its horror around all those in proximity to its victim is startling. No one in the victim's orbit remains unscathed, even if it is only by virtue of being the recipient of a blank stare: I don't know who you are. Because all we ever want is to be known. And if we have felt known, perhaps it is more painful to experience the process of being un-known.

Later that day, when I got off the phone with my mom, I cried a little bit, thinking of her washing her mother's hair, painting her nails, dabbing a bit of blush and lipstick on her questioning face. And yet I don't quite know who I cried for. My mother? My grandmother? Myself? I suppose I cried because of the unknown--because I don't know who will wash my hair one day. I don't know whether I will feel, as Leslie did, the loss as love.