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)