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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Up Close and Personal With the TSA

I've finally published a few of my thoughts regarding the TSA and airport "security." For more on what I call the "spectacle of fear" and "security theater," check out my article on the cover of this week's Jewish Journal.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Red: An Encounter

I saw Pina last night--the new Wim Wenders film about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. The image pictured above is a still from the film. I had wanted to see Pina for the past year, ever since I taught a class on post-WWII German film and got really into Wim Wenders. It's raw and intense, but not in a manner that is overly draining. And it's in 3D, which is really important to the experience of the film--it's in no way gratuitous or cool for the sake of cool.

The opening scene is all dirt (spread over a stage), barely clothed bodies with intense facial expressions, dramatic movements, and one piece of thin red fabric that we later see is a dress that one dancer will be forced to wear. But with the 3D component, I felt as if I were standing there at the edge of the dirt in and among them. At one point a dancer brings the red fabric to the edge, where I felt I stood, and looked right at me before dropping the fabric at my feet.

It was one of the most intense encounters with the recognition of responsibility that I've ever experienced. This woman, the agony on her face, her eyes piercing me, the red fabric laying at my feet, the horde of dancers now at the opposite end of the stage watching me--what was I to do with it? Where had it come from? Why was it suddenly mine?

And I could hear them breathing. Dirt, sweat, breath, and one red flash: our origins.

I had suddenly become its hostage. And it occurs to me now that this is always the texture of responsibility--what it necessarily looks and feels like. The sense of horror comes from the agony of both ownership and captivity. I could not look away, and now I keep looking back to that first moment of the film.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Radical Departure

Most often I recoil from posting anything of too personal a nature on this blog--especially in the form of photographs. Clearly I subscribe to a different brand of self-indulgence. But we just loved working with these photographers so much that I couldn't resist posting a link to some of our wedding photos on their blog. I'm still as dark and deliciously unhappy as ever, but I do love these photographs. I hate to say that they make me happy, but . . .

Friday, March 30, 2012

Wilderness Has No Words

Sometimes I imagine that life has already picked my bones bare. And then I tell myself that I have not yet lived. But the truth is that I have lived enough to know that I am already dying. But I feel alive, even as I slouch farther and farther from the bright chaos of origin, of birth, of coming into this world.

Sometimes this means I don't know how to talk to you. Or to her. Or him. Or maybe it means you don't yet speak my language.

I'm a literature/philosophy person. I love ideas and poetry--things that cut us in every direction. I didn't study rhetoric or linguistics like some of my friends, but I am still often fascinated by conversations in which people engage--by their structures and rhythms, their transparencies and idiosyncrasies. I also simply love language, and recently it occurred to me that conversations can destroy language. Language is something that is shared--a dialogue. In theory, a conversation is also something that is shared--an exchange of words and ideas. Well, yes, it should be.

But words are used so carelessly. I'm thinking of a conversation in which I recently pretended to engage: two men, two women, beautiful faces, charming smiles, careless laughter, many words. My soul is dying as I pretend to be kind. Many hours together and yet I cannot recall why I laughed when I did--why I appeared to laugh--or what I could have possibly said, what words I could have used as I skimmed the surface with them. If only I, too, could be satisfied.

And then tonight I found something. Someone recently gave me a collection of poems (The Deleted World) by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.  Something about this one ("From March 1979") feels right:

Sick of those who come with words, words but no language,
I make my way to the snow-covered island.

Wilderness has no words. The unwritten pages
stretch out in all directions.

I come across this line of deer-slots in the snow: a language, 
language without words.

And I wonder: is it really true--must a need for language without words exile us to a wilderness?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Knowing Secret Things

Just the other night I went looking for something: a love poem. That is, I went searching for some kind of philosophical musing on love, something both painful and exhilarating--something that would name what it is that we experience, something that would present itself as an alternative to some of our impulses, ever the anti-thesis to happiness. Perhaps, for once, I had need of cliches. Don't we all, at some point, if only to account for their pervasiveness?

I thought of Yehuda Amichai; I thought of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Love, for both Amichai and Rilke, is fraught, always already. It is heavy and laden, threaded through with a doubt--a knowing insight--that stabilizes and clarifies more than the purity of a love that one seeks and never finds. I suppose I should have considered Elizabeth Barrett Browning--how do I love thee?--or a voice equal to such hyperbolic exaltations of something we name love.

But I know better.

I stayed with Rilke, though I felt nudged to wander. And, as on many nights, I found what I didn't know I was looking for: I want to be with those who know secret things, or else alone. And I found my love poem.

I want to be with those who know secret things, or else alone.

Those who know secret things: the things we all close our eyes to. I once read an essay about the difference between how little girls and little boys form friendships with their peers. Girls, running around on the playground, stopping to whisper into another girl's ear: a secret. And little boys: yelling, running, pushing, panting. Bonding, both. What is it about secrets that bind women, in their younger years, together?

We abhor secrets and secrecy as we grow older. We relinquish mystery for the mundane. Perhaps we cease, consequently, to love. And yet secrets are not simply the opposite of the mundane, mystery romanticized until it become the object of an immature obsession.

But what are these secret things? No. What is the secret? I can't help but think that it hurts, that it longs, that it agonizes and even hates.

I once knew someone who loved G-d so much that he hated him for his failure and silences. He would go to the synagogue on Shabbat to stand in the back and glower and hate and agonize. But I would take this. I would take a hatred so intense that it threatened to reveal its own secrets.

Sometimes being with someone who knows secret things means not being with him, with her. I read Jabes, Levinas, Rilke--I think of wounds and red threads and of being your hostage. And it becomes my secret. It becomes my love. To be with those who know secret things . . . means to be alone.

I am with you, always. I love you, always. The freedom to long, the space to desire: the knowledge of secret things, of things secret.