The call for submissions to end all submission

I am a sucker for signs. I see evidence for action in unusual places: on the bumper sticker that says “I miss you!,” on the tractor trailer in front of me on the highway, or in that dream in which cats have snuck into my hotel room and eaten up all the free pastries left on a tray by the door, or when Nina Simone sings “For Myself” at the same time an article on the Self written by Maria Popova pops up in my feed.

This week, old houses keep popping up, too — mine and others’. In poems I haven’t written yet, but also in my waking life.

* * *

Clue #1: After my middle son finished Key to the Treasure the other day, I was certain he was going to choose Clues in the Woods because choosing Haunted House would be very unlike him — he, like I am, is scared to be scared, especially before bed.

But he chose Haunted House, and after checking in with him to make sure this was the one he wanted to read next, we began.

Clue #2: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: “Leonard had grown up in an Arts & Crafts house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall. The grisly history of 133 Linden Street had kept the house on the market for years.”

Clue #3: This article from December about memory and mentally mapping our homes — it showed up at the top of my Twitter feed today. More than the study results, I was struck by the dollhouse image used to illustrate the story.  Dollhouses have a way of being so inviting and so terrifying at the same time. Like old hotels. Like Stephen King. I felt this way before I read The Dollhouse Murders and long before I saw The Shining.

Clue #4 is a secret. I won’t tell it, but no matter.

* * *

I am going to enter the contest to win a bed and breakfast in Maine.

I haven’t figured out yet how to explain to Janice in 200 words why it feels as though I am already the winner.

This makes me sound like a narcissist and I want to sound like a dreamer. Or at least like someone who lives her life one foot atop one pole and one foot atop the other.

I want to explain to Janice that the word Maine is blue and that I love that northern state because I spent four summers at overnight camp there, three of which I spent in love and that this is a good thing, not a thing that makes me crazy, but makes me the type of person who other people — guests — will be happy to see in the morning. And anyway, my husband will be the one cooking breakfast and serving pancakes in the shapes of native birds. Once he served our dinner guests sweet potato pancakes with a dollop of wasabi sour cream that was as delicate as a meringue. I will be the one who organizes the books in the library each night. (There will be vintage National Geographic magazines and perhaps a set of Encyclopedia Brittannica, too.) I will be the one who changes the sheets. I will keep the ghosts appeased. I will invite them to have tea in the garden so they don’t frighten the guests.

* * *

I had a dollhouse once. It was this one. Not this exact one, but its doppelganger.

(photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/magnoliasra/kh/)

* * *

I still love miniatures.

I love it that my husband sneaks into the bathroom before bed to set up clever scenes with the Playmobil my daughter left behind after her bath, with the purpose of surprising me when I happen upon them before brushing my teeth.

I especially love the miniature toilet and the European style hand shower: Bathroom appliances were never furnished with the dollhouses I played with as a child.

Which brings me back to the dream of the cats eating pastries in my hotel room.

I had been in the bathroom when they snuck in. They took advantage of my uniquely human need to relieve myself in privacy.

I was angry at first, but I couldn’t blame them. After all, I had left the front door open.

A short reflection on showering

keep telling myself to take a shower. “In 20 minutes, take a shower.” 20 minutes pass and I do not take a shower I do this thing where I look up people I admire on Twitter and see who they admire and then follow them  — half because I want to learn from them and half because I want them to pay attention to me. Not showering yet is evidence that the half that wants them to pay attention to me is diminishing because not taking a shower shows I want education more than I want to be pretty or smell good and so these days not showering is a good sign that the ego (or is it the superego) is deflating.

That

or the fact that my long hair no longer looks better after I shower so why bother. My hair which used to be the best of me after my breasts but now lies as flat as they do, shower or no shower, is no longer a win-win is betraying me is possibly falling out no not now but possibly soon. I think of my Nini that time I walked in on her adjusting her wig in the mirror at the dresser in her bedroom. This was before the cancer and I confirm it with my father who says “her forties, I guess.”

So I better

Key to the Treasure

I keep dreaming of my childhood home. I won’t bore you with the details; with the recalling of the coat closet next to the front door; the fur that once lived there, but didn’t appear in my dream. In my dream, my mother pulled out a vintage polyester shirt draped over a wire hanger steam-pressed and plastic wrapped years ago, now eager to breathe. She handed it to me, “Do you want this?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer.

= =

My middle son is reading a musky-smelling original hardcover edition of Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish. It’s not the edition I read when I was nine — mine was paperback. But mine was lost in the Flood.

= =

I know for certain someone somewhere is reading my copy of New York Then and Now on a toilet. It’s a book meant to be read on the toilet.

They call them coffee table books, but no one has time for coffee anymore. They ought to be called toilet books. This is where I go when I want to pore over pictures from then and now.

Why can’t I manage to hang on to my books? Especially the ones I sought out, hand-picked, then coveted?

I found some of my lost New York books at The Strand last December. I had an urge to buy them all in an effort to once again build a carefully curated collection. This would have been a redux since once before — on weekday afternoons at Bookman’s in Tucson — I spent my lunch hour scanning the children’s section for the titles lost in the Flood.

= =

I say it, but I don’t yet fully believe it: That there is something worthwhile in losing.

==

Except this.

I accept the hardcover original edition of Key to the Treasure, but I do so with a gentle stab of reluctance. I understand it’s the story I was wild about when I was nine — Jed and Bill and Liza and the feathered bonnet and the sorrow of missed connections passed down through the generations — not the texture of the pages or the color illustration on the cover. And yet, I want back what was once mine.

After all, if I had wanted to part with it I would have. I would have piled my copy of the book on top of the others that were going to Good Will. But I didn’t. I kept it on my shelf and then placed it in a cardboard box which I labelled “Jen’s books” before my father carried it down to the basement.

Those books, I believed, were meant to be found again one day.

= =

I say it, but I don’t yet fully believe it: That there is something worthwhile in losing.

= =

I can have almost anything I want: a Fisher Price Sesame Street set, a pair of gently-used docksiders, a Speak and Spell, an autographed pull-out poster of Mackenzie Astin. People are buying and selling my faded memories…and yours… all the time.

I can have almost anything I want.

==

And yet, there is something worthwhile in the losing. In the being lost.

These things

“Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, analyzed, shelved, or resolved. Fragmentary ideas, apparently unrelated, were often found to be part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory…”  –H.D., Writing on the Wall


I seal in plastic Ziploc bags photographs, letters, my child’s artwork. I pile up large Tupperware containers of high school journals, college scrapbooks, and sticker albums I’ve saved since 3rd grade.  There is even a small box inside a larger box in which I store cut-up cotton shirts; remnants of all the graphic tees I ever stuffed into the set of almond-colored formica drawers of my childhood bedroom. The idea was to make a quilt one day. But it’s been more than 20 years since I cut them and still they remain fragments of a former social life.

Sometimes, I let go. I purge, actually; for the movement is swift and forceful.

I gather up books and plastic toys from McDonald’s and washed out jelly jars I was saving for just-in-case. I rally the troops in their respective bedrooms and we dig out unaccounted for Lego, DVDs, and well-loved teddies they once birthed at Build-A-Bear.

It used to be that we would prepare a yard sale — display all our attachments large and small on the grass for others to descend upon and barter for. Now, I push it all down into a free tote bag I got once at the grocery store and drive to the recycling area.

My load becomes lighter then. I feel clean in the same way I do when I make the bed before sleeping in it.

It’s temporary, though, this weightlessness. I will feel dirty again. I will feel weighed down by the objects that make up my life.

* * *

Sometimes I want it all back.

Not all. But something specific.

Days or years pass, for instance, and suddenly I long for the floor-length sleeveless, blue and white flowered dress I traded in for credit at the secondhand shop on Broadway because I could never bend down when I wore it. When I realize it’s missing, I’m surprised. How could I have given up that dress? Didn’t I understand that one day it might fit me differently? There are photographs of me in that dress I can actually tolerate – black and white strip photos taken on the boardwalk in Ocean City. I was younger then. I wore contacts. But, I think it was the dress that made me pretty.

Sometimes, in a dream, I’ll be certain I still own a pair of shoes I have long since abandoned. Where are they, the black wedges I know will be perfect for the job interview I have tomorrow?  I frantically shuffle around my dusty, hardwood-lined closet floor, pushing to the side my brown suede clogs and my untied docksiders and my Naot sandals. My fingers will never find them because I listed them on a Freecycle board two years ago and subsequently dropped them off in front of a Tudor in South Orange, NJ.

One morning, I wake up and realize I’ve been dreaming about the brown leather backpack I carried with me through four years of college and some years after. I don’t even remember when I threw it away. This pains me. Documenting my losses is a coping mechanism.

Soft to the touch, but robust enough to manage three spiral-bound notebooks, a heavy “baby chem” textbook, and a glass bottle of Raspberry Snapple tucked away in a side unzippered pouch — that brown leather backpack was the security blanket of my young adulthood. Sometimes I tucked the yellow Sony Walkman into the other side pocket, a long track of rubber-lined wire snaking out and up into my ears as I hiked the city blocks between my apartment on F Street and the modern mirrored building on 22nd where I took beginner’s Hebrew on the 3rd floor and piano lessons in the basement.  There were crumbs of a chocolate chip cookie that smelled like nicotine once at the bottom of that brown leather backpack.

There was a flap, too, that closed off the main compartment, but also served as a wallet-like coin holder, with room enough for a wad of cash and easy access to my student ID. With one hand, I could click the flap shut into a magnetic metal clasp. Even though it appeared to be a complicated buckle, it wasn’t. It was very simple actually.

I must have gotten rid of the brown leather backpack in Tucson.

It must have been after my mother treated me to the high end, shiny Petunia Picklebottom diaper bag.  Like the brown leather backpack, it was a handy carryall with suitable compartments – an easy-access exterior pocket for diapers and wipes; one of the side pockets for bottles. It even came with an interior zippered pouch for personal items, a nursing pad, or eventually, a tampon.

When my son was two, we decided to leave Arizona to head back to where we came from in New Jersey.  That’s when we had our first yard sale. We sold the glass tables we registered for at Pottery Barn. We sold one of the lamps, too. We sold the swing set in the backyard.  I don’t remember what else.

It must have been then I parted with the brown leather backpack.

I guess.

* * *

Now, it’s a black canvas backpack I carry daily (a leftover promotional gift from a job I left 14 years ago). Inside are two pieces of uneaten fruit and half a cream cheese sandwich prepared on a gluten-free pita.  There is an unzippered side pocket from which a Laken thermo-insulated bottled filled with filtered water peeks out and another side pocket in which I carry plastic bags for “just in case.”  In two exterior zippered compartments, there is spare change for use in either Israel or in America, but not in both.  There are markers, pencils, pens, bubblegum already chewed.

It’s durable, my black canvas backpack.  And loved, too, in a colder more practical way. I carry it on two shoulders instead of one. I am often in awe of how long it’s lasted.

From time to time –in between classes at the university where I am studying for my Master’s degree or on a plane seated in the middle of two of my children — I consider how long and often I’ve weighed the black backpack down. How I’ve tested it. How it still serves me.

I wonder, too, how I will one day lose track of the black canvas backpack or if I will wear it until it breaks.

What is a classic?

What is a classic?

The Giving Tree in English. But not in Hebrew.

What is a classic?

The Wonder Years. Especially the one in which Paul becomes a bar mitzvah. Or any episode with The Byrds as background music.

What is a classic?

Mighty Love. Let My Love Open the Door. All You Need is Love. In My Room.

What is a classic?

Cornbread. Warmed.

What is a classic?

Square dancing in gym class. Sorry, more Wonder Years.

What is a classic?

I don’t know. Classics are supposed to be timeless and yet some classics have changed for me with time.  Like, The Giving Tree used to be IT for me and now I suppose The Missing Piece is. But that just happened 15 minutes ago. Can it be a classic already? Moby Dick is not a classic, and yet it is, just not for me. Not yet. But it might be one day and then I will look back at today and realize I was ignorant of the classics. The Wizard of Oz is a classic, but I’ve watched it too many times and now it is a classic, but stale.

Like The Shawshank Redemption.

Like TBS.

Like Apple Pie.

I suppose if I had to say, a classic is that which makes me cry when I am not sad.

What is a classic?

The tune to My Darling Clementine.

Mint.

Feet in the sand.

The Barbie Dreamhouse with the elevator.

Jim Croce.

Half-burnt marshmallow on a stick.

Josh and Jodie.

My dad’s green fiat.

Pepsi Free.

Yesterday.

That time my Bubbi cried at Denny’s because her eggs were runny.

That time my brother threw a rootbeer bottle at me.

That time the car was stuck in the mud in a rainstorm, but I only remember that one in a dream.

What is a classic?

Forgot my locker combo.

Forgot to study for the final.

Left my passport at home.

What is a classic?

“These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.”

What is a classic?

“In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves reduced to I
and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible.”

What is a classic?

“It is startling
to realize that
some of our most cherished memories
may never have happened — or may
have happened to someone else.”

What is a classic?

What is         a classic?

——–

The above contains poetry by Sylvia Plath (“Stillborn”) and Adrienne Rich (“In Those Years”), and commentary on memory by Oliver Sacks

Dreams, even those about monkey gods, are normal

1. Last night, I asked Avi if it was strange that I could not recall one exam I took in college from 1992 to 1996. I remember so much from my past, I said, but not one college exam?

He said, “Well, that was a long time ago.”

“True,” I replied, nodding my head even though I thought his response was uninspired. “But what I’ve learned about memory is that how long ago is not most important to our recall. What’s most important is how often we remember the memory. Our memories, it turns out, are mostly memories of memories. They are the stories we keep telling ourselves of our memories.”

My husband looked up at me. “That makes sense.”

2. It is February 1, 2015, two days before the final exam in Aggada and I have a dream that I am late. I look at my watch in the dream and the numbers displayed read 12:03, three minutes after I was meant to be sitting in the exam room, but instead I am drinking coffee on campus with a friend. I panic and gather my things. After a series of dream type mishaps – including not being able to find my keys or my car – I end up locating my car in a far off parking lot thanks to the assistance of a young attendant, but I wake up from the dream before I take the exam.

Nevertheless, the dream feels resolved, closed. I wake up relieved. Before I wake up, however, I hook up with the young parking attendant who helped me find my car.

3. It is February 3, 2015 the day of my Aggada exam. I arrive on campus two hours early and sit in the garden outside the assigned building until 15 minutes before the exam. I am determined not to be late. 15 minutes before the exam, I enter the building, walk down to the basement to the exam room, and attempt to check in.

I hand the middle aged female monitor my ID card. She reviews it and looks up to face me. She asks me in Hebrew, “Did you change your name?”

“No,” I respond slowly, still trying to translate in my head this phrase I wasn’t expecting.

“Your name is not on the list,” she tells me. “You must go to the Administration Building and get special permission to take the test.”

I panic, but only slightly. “Where is the Administration Building?”

“Oh, it’s over there.” She points behind her in a direction I imagine is very clear and precise in her mind, but in mine is not, since my mind is filled with parables from long ago about reincarnated rabbis, ancient wisdom, and miracles from Heaven.

Later, but not much, I will see that this moment itself is a reincarnation of an ancient wisdom. Later, but not much, I will understand again that no matter how hard I try to change the future, I can’t.

In the end, I am late for the exam.

I wander down and around winding paths, follow faded signs in Hebrew and eventually come upon the Administration Building, which is tucked away behind some bushes peppered with daylilies. Inside, I ask for Asher as I had been instructed.

Do you know what time Asher resolves the matter and sends me back to the classroom to take the exam?

12:03

I knew it would be 12:03 even though Asher had said with his thumb and pointer finger, “Dakah,” which means “just a minute.” It was 11:58 then, and I knew he’d be back in 4 minutes, not one. I knew because my dream had told me.

When he returns at 12:03, I thank Asher in Hebrew, but I do not hook up with him.

I only smile. After all, his name, in Hebrew, means “happy.”

4. “Pray for the future, hope for the best
One never knows, does one?” —
Charles Brown, One Never Knows (mixed tape, 1997)

5. I had a dream last night I had a lover. He was married. He was someone who lives here on the kibbutz. In real life, he is attractive, but I am not attracted to him. This is another kind of love. The kind where you acknowledge the beauty of thing, but don’t necessarily feel the desire to partake of it.

6. “There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious….”

— Donna Tartt, The Secret History

7. Yesterday, in my writing workshop, Suzanne asked me, “Are you trying to prove the unprovable?”

“Because, you know,” she said. “This magic you notice might truly exist, but it may never be provable.”

8. When I read CG Jung’s autobiography Dreams, Memories and Reflections, I cried a lot. I cried from that place we cry when we realize we are not the first to experience the profoundly unexplainable. That we are not, in fact, weird. Or that weird is, in fact, normal. At least, a little bit normal.

9. Last night I had a dream I was in my childhood home. It looked the way it looked then, not the way it looked 6 months ago when I parked my car in front of the driveway with two of my children in the backseat and asked the owner if I could enter. The kitchen was not gutted in my dream. The living room was not refashioned into some joke in my dream. In my dream, the kitchen was lined with the wallpaper of my youth and the sun shined in through the door to the deck at an angle I was familiar with.

In the dream, our cats are inside the house instead of out, and I ask my husband, “Don’t you think we should get them shots if we are going to let them inside?

He doesn’t answer.

At that moment, I notice a baboon outside in the back yard and get excited. I call for my brother or for my son  — some boy who is younger than I am and that I am meant to love — to come look. After all, it’s not often we have a baboon in our backyard. I call for my father, too, or for my husband — some man who I am meant to admire and respect in a way — to bring the smart phone so we can take a picture of it. But he doesn’t respond quickly enough. So I grab my phone and run around to the front of the house where the baboon has run off to.

I manage to capture a shot of the baboon, which I see now has the face of a man, but the body of a monkey and I realize he is neither human, nor animal, but perhaps an angry demi-god. For certain, he is angry, but I am not afraid. He is outside, after all, and I am in.

He is jumping high above the trees and coming back down to Earth again. Nevertheless, I capture a closeup of his face as he stares out but not at me and there behind him is a tree whose leaves have already changed to a deep red and complement the red shades of his angry face.

I get the picture. And I am relieved.

Nobody Understands Me

My daughter, 6, learned language in Israel.

Before we moved here four years ago, she was already speaking in 2-3 word sentences in English, but as soon as we landed we plopped her tushy down on a dirty linoleum floor in the kibbutz preschool in which other little girls, nostrils inflating green mucus bubbles, would lovingly shove their pacifiers into her mouth as a gesture of friendship, ask her questions in a Hebrew she did not yet understand, and eventually instruct her on how exactly to lift up her right shoulder towards the underside of her jaw in a way that meant, “I don’t want to. You can’t make me.”

My daughter learned Hebrew quickly and dropped the right shoulder as her vocabulary grew more robust and her voice more confident. She’s more demanding now, as well, in both English and in Hebrew. But still she often can’t find the word she wants in English when she talks to me.  Frustrated, she’ll say “Never mind” or if she’s already in a bad mood, “You just don’t understand!”

She’s 6, and she’s already telling her mother, “You just don’t understand.”

It’s not uncommon for her to say this to other adults or to her brothers. Her grandfather, just yesterday, laughed while reminiscing an incident from last week when she said outright in Hebrew, “Af echad  lo meyveen oti!” Nobody understands me!

I wonder about this. Is her frustration really a result of language? Is that the only reason my daughter often feels mis- or outright not understood? Or is it bigger than that? Something genetic my husband and I — both artists by nature, if not always by practice — passed down to her?

I stumble on what exactly, if anything, to do. If it’s purely about language, I could find a tutor for her or perhaps have her evaluated to make sure her comprehension and expression are developmentally appropriate. But what if it’s more about how she sees herself in the world. What, then, is there to do? And is it better to try to fix it? Or to leave it alone?

If someone could have fixed my “otherness” would I have wanted them to?(I think my mother might have tried from time to time.)

It is, I think, our otherness that propels us to create, to see beauty where others don’t, to express it in unique ways. I am confident that without my existential angst, without the sense sometimes that I am alone, without the urge to make myself known and heard and “gotten”, I would not be a writer.

So, maybe my daughter feels misunderstood. Maybe letting her figure that one out on her own wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

If it ends up being so, more fodder for her own memoir.

Letter to Other People, Not Me

Dear other people, not me:

Do you startle every time the phone rings at 2 pm on a week day and the caller ID says Private Number or worse yet says Givat Ela or the letters strung together that mean the name of your children’s school?

When the phone rings at 2 pm and after I can breathe again, I determine the phone was not invented to communicate Information or Longing or Sentiments, but really created to effectively illustrate the sound of  Emergency or Tragedy or Something Very Very Scary You Don’t Want to Know.

When I was a girl and the phone would ring at 2 pm, I wouldn’t hear it because I was in a classroom watching the minute hand tick closer and closer to the number 6 knowing that soon it would be time to exit this peanut butter clorox smelling classroom with its sad yellowy sponge cake walls.

I wish I was there now. I wish I was somewhere anywhere where the phone ringing at 2 pm didn’t startle me so.

I suppose I might have startled when I was a girl and the phone would ring at 11 pm and the blue haze from the evening news was the only light emanating from my parents’ bedroom, but that never happened because no one died then nor did they choke on hard-boiled eggs on the playground at recess nor did they accidentally touch peanut butter clorox and go into anaphylactic shock. No one except Jim O’Brien that time from the plane.

I suppose I was lucky.

You would think that in this day and age of John Denver ring tones and Kissy Kissy noises indicating that someone has sent a Sentiment or Information or Longing to you by Whatsapp that I would have discovered a way to not be so startled by the phone; that I would have figured out a way to reprogram my inner switch, to convince my bodily mechanisms that the ringing means

YOUR CHILDREN ARE FINE! JUST FINE! or

YOU DON’T HAVE CANCER AND YOU NEVER WILL! or

YOU’RE THE NEXT CONTESTANT ON THE PRICE IS RIGHT!

But I have not.

I suppose there are other people, not me, who don’t even hear the phone when it rings, or if they do, they don’t startle at the possible futures waiting on the other end of the line.

They imagine the word regnad, not danger because they see the world backwards from the way I see it and nothing looks frightening backwards except murder written on a mirror in blood.

I suppose there are other people, not me, who bless the phone every time it rings, feel deep inner gratitude for the wonders of technology.

And I suppose if I did this, I might not startle every time the phone rings at 2 pm.

I might bless the phone next time, as if it had just sneezed and we weren’t going to die because sneezing isn’t so dangerous anymore.

What time travel sounds like

Oh how I wish I was in your bedroom right now and could place inside your tiny paper plate ears a pair of plastic headphones so you could close your eyes and hear what time travel sounds like at least once before you die.

Since I can’t or, let’s face it, you won’t let me no matter how nicely I ask or how sane I try to sound, I will settle for the next best thing which is to request that you click through to this link and turn the volume up as high as it will go, press play and close your eyes.

The next 27 seconds is what time travel sounds like; and the three and a half minutes after is best suited for singing out loud. No, not lip syncing, but, singing out loud. Or (this part is optional and only for the truly possessed) pretend you are slow dancing — with me, or with someone else not me, someone you won’t let put headphones into your ears even though you really want to because you think she’s a little off or a little too sorrowful or a little off.

Close your eyes. Then, cross your arms. Rest your hands on opposite shoulders. Sway back and forth. Back and forth. Until

Sometimes I forget Michael Jackson is dead

There was a Michael Jackson song on the radio this morning, an early morning, a foggy morning, a morning in which four people would be stabbed with a knife while praying Shacharit in a synagogue in Jerusalem, but I wouldn’t know that til later. The song wasn’t a favorite, wasn’t Billie Jean, wasn’t Gotta Be Starting Something, wasn’t Man in the Mirror, but one of his songs I knew only because it was scribbled in scratch on one of his album covers.

For six seconds I believed Michael Jackson was alive, was still hanging out in Neverland not molesting children, not living ambiguously, not drinking Pepsi with llamas, but alive on the radio singing about living. Then I remembered the day my 6 year old came home from school saying “Michael Jackson is dead.” For six seconds I believed my son was just repeating another age inappropriate tabloid headline like he often did then because his classmates were not the kind of kids who would have received in 1984 a red studded faux Michael Jackson jacket for Chanukah, but the kind of kids whose older brothers packed guns or who had to leave in the middle of second grade to move to their aunt’s house in Florida because their mom was deported. All of this is true including the fog.

It’s strange that my morning began with the King of Pop alive and ended with the TV repeating cell phone footage of snipers surrounding the outer walls of a synagogue because two men decided to interrupt Shacharit with knives and axes, because no buses are running now on a street in Jerusalem, because it was a foggy morning, because you gotta be starting something, because there’s a man in the mirror, because life ain’t so bad at all if you live it off the wall.

Almost Book Review: Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey

It’s an almost book review for two reasons: 1. I haven’t finished the book.

Of course, I am certain many reviewers — ones who get paid for their reviews, even — don’t always finish the book they are slated to review. In my case, the early review is reasonable since Madness, Rack, and Honey is a collection of essays (in fact, most were graduate lectures given by Ruefle) and is suitable for reading at multiple sittings. After all, the lectures presumably were given over weeks, months, possibly years. In my case, the essays are being read over multiple bedtimes and in between other readings, both required and not.

This is an “almost book review” for a second reason and that is because I have a motive in reviewing this book on my blog: I want a good reason to share a particular passage with you that struck me last night. I want to make you read the passage, see if you feel it like I did, and then listen to your footsteps as you run to go order Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books) for yourself. It’s such a pretty thing; opt for the hard copy.

medness rack honeyDon’t be scared off by the fact the book was distinguished as a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism. Ruefle’s lectures were written with people in mind, students in particular, not necessarily academics; but students who love to read, students who are compelled to write, students who paid for a degree in Fine Arts.

This is not your ordinary book “on writing.” Ruefle’s lectures read like essays — they’re informative, but observational; reflective, even as she imparts wisdom. Ruefle indeed wrote all her lectures out and then presumably read them aloud — as she clarifies in the introduction, “I am a rotten and unsteady extemporizer. I preferred to write my lectures because I am a writer and writing is my natural act, more natural than speaking.”

This I relate to. In my imaginary ideal world, I would write out everything I want to say in advance of saying it and be cued by cards. I don’t long for a guardian angel to protect me from dangerous criminals; I need one to protect me from my impulsivity, my unedited self. I want an angel who can hold cue cards in front of me wherever I go; cue cards I’ve written in advance for the occasion, carefully crafted words.

But I digress…

I first discovered the book after enjoying Ruefle’s essay On Secrets, assigned to me in a writing workshop. When I realized the essay was part of a collection, I looked it up and discovered that many of the collected lectures speak to recurring topics and themes in my own writing — On Beginnings, On Sentimentality, On Fear – or topics I spend much of my day ruminating over, but not necessarily writing publicly on, such as the portents or prophesies that appear in my dreams. Apparently this happens to Ruefle, too.

“The phrase madness, rack, and honey came to me in a dream,” writes Ruefle. “And I want to tell you what the words mean to me. I want to publicly interpret my own dream, which consisted solely of these three words.”

I connect to Ruefle’s style and voice, too, which is extremely self-aware throughout most of the essays. She appears to think out loud, to ponder, even though she has already told us she writes out everything in advance. No word, we can assume — not any of the seeming extra ones even — fall out of Ruefle’s mouth unintentionally. And yet, her voice is often unsteady, down-to-earth, human. She stands there in front of her audience an expert, but one who outright identifies herself as just another daydreamer, just another poet with questions for the universe.

The book is a gem, and I’m only half-way through. The particular gem that compelled me to share the book with you relates in particular to the writing project I’ve been focusing on for the past 10 months and sometimes blogging about: Digging through the artifacts of my Self — my letters, my journals, evidence of my creative self — and discovering the ways in which I’ve changed and the ways in which I’ve remained the same even though I previously thought I changed.

It is this very phenomenon, an almost double to an experience I had a few months ago, Ruefle highlights in a passage in her essay Someone Reading A Book:

Recently I was reading the notebooks of the Greek poet George Seferis. I was also reading, for the first and last time of my life, my own private journals, which I began writing when I was 16 and ceased to write when I was 40. As is my habit, I was copying selected passages from the Seferis into a notebook. Later that evening I began reading a journal I kept 20 years ago. In it I was reading the the notebooks of the Greek poet George Seferis and had copied into the journal by hand my favorite passage, which was identical to the passage I had copied earlier in the day, believing completely I had never encountered it before: But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, and with what you have lost, and with what you will never find again.

Blogger fatigue

If it was a color, blogger fatigue would be mustard yellow and it would be caked on to the countertop like a booger.

You stare at it. Ponder it. Consider your options. You could walk away. Leave it for someone else, but in the end, you’re compelled to scrape it off with the nail of the middle finger of your right hand. (Or the other, if you’re a leftie.) Then, you use your thumb to extricate the pieces of blogger fatigue caught beneath the nail. You flick the hardened flakes into the sink — if you’re the kind of person who cares where boogers land. If not, you flick your blogger fatigue into the air where it floats down to the kitchen floor. You’re going to have to sweep it up anyway.

Blogger fatigue — by which I mean the temporary aversion to sharing any more inner thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, dream analyses, stream of consciousness poems about childhood shopping malls, lists of tomorrow’s tasks, casual references to cool things you’ve done or celebrated people you’ve met, tips for new moms, tips for old moms, tips for moms who wish they were lesbians, recipes with pretty Pinterest pictures, links to other bloggers whose interests I might share or not but who might link back to my blog and increase my traffic by two — is bringing me down. But not down enough to shut down. Not forever.

If there was a cure for blogger fatigue, it would be temporary, like sweatpants are a temporary relief for seasonal affective disorder. I promise, once my region of the world lights up again, I’ll return to wearing skinny jeans and telling you all about the time I touched Matt Dillon’s butt in the basement of a bar whose name I forget on the Lower East Side.

Free

If I collected pretty purple waves of light every time I said the word “free,” perhaps I’d be the kind of free i really want to be. not gluten free, not nut free, not sugar free, fat free, or buy one get one free, not
Groupon free, but really free. Worry free is close, but not close enough. My desire is the kind of free at least three meters away from a hyphen. mine must be at a certain distance from a noun in order to avoid possible cross-contamination. mine, I’d tell the chef, burns easily, so keep it in a cool, dry place like the yellow bowl high atop the counter where little hands covered in Play-doh can’t reach it.

It’s sad, really, how we’ve corrupted free, compounded it, like mad scientists preparing the liquid version for the old man who can no longer swallow pills. It used to be so pretty: wide orange all-caps. Now free is a deflated nude, the letters warped like old records left too many years in the back storage room of my parents’ basement. I wish I had the key

to free her.

5 Random Facts About Me

Deborah chose me and I’ll have to be honest — I was excited. In a tingly “you’ve been selected” sorta way. I felt it …well, I won’t tell you where, but it’s the same spot in my body and the same physical sensation I get whenever I’ve decided I’ve been designated special by someone.

Of course, this sensitivity to being chosen also makes me physically vulnerable to the dark side of egocentric arousal — for when someone decides I’m not special (or worse, unremarkable or overrated), the tingly sensation moves down to my lower digestive tract; I spend the next few hours in the bathroom, and … well you can imagine the rest.

Deborah dared me to reveal five random facts about myself. I use the word “dare” lightly because, let’s be honest, if I didn’t enjoy disclosing facts about myself, you and I wouldn’t be enjoying this writer/reader virtual pseudo-relationship. In fact, if I could just eliminate the urge to tell you stuff, I might be able to once and for all walk away from social media.

I could be happy.

But then, I wouldn’t be a writer.

Which leads me to Random Fact #1.

Everyday anxiety is an “organizing principle” in my life. In other words, it has made me who I am today and continues to make me who I am no matter how much yoga I practice, no matter which books I read, how much air I breathe, no matter how slowly or deeply. Anxiety is an essential element of me.

I did not realize there was a name for this condition until I read a passage yesterday about Joan Didion written by Vivian Gornick in her book on writing called The Situation and the Story:

For Joan Didion, ordinary, everyday anxiety is an organizing principle. Out of it she has created a depressed, quivering persona that serves her talent wonderfully … in [her] essays, where a subject beyond the self must be intersected with—migraine headache, the Black Panthers, California and the American Dream—Didion’s gorgeous nerves are brought under brilliant control. It is here, in this form, that her existential nervousness is developed with such artistry that insight transforms, and literature is made through the naked use of the writer’s emotional disability.

Don’t mistake my admission of Random Fact #1 as me comparing myself to successful memoirist and essayist Joan Didion. As if! But out of this I understand that my acid reflux and my artistry, my migraines and my imagination, like Didion’s, go hand and hand. And that I am far, far from alone.

Which leads me to …

Random Fact #2

One of my most notable appearances in the media was in the Associated Press when I was quoted as being a sufferer of irritable bowel syndrome. Equally classy, I was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as not only suffering from IBS, but also allergies and anxiety. At the time, those interviews seemed like a good idea for the personal brand I was building (as a wellness expert and writer). Now, I’m not so sure.

Random Fact #3

My bowel, ever irritable, offered me the distinct honor of pooping in the Executive Office building of the White House where I volunteered every Wednesday morning between the hours of 4 am  and 9 am for the Clinton administration’s Communications Office one semester in 1994. Also in the Embassy of Israel where I interned for a semester. And in the Starbucks on K Street.

I was just telling a friend of mine yesterday, in fact, that I had this brilliant idea when I used to live in Manhattan in the late 90s. I wanted to research and publish a Zagat type listing of all the best bathrooms in Manhattan. I zagathad mentally logged most of the cleanest ones in SoHo, where I lived and worked at the time, for my own personal benefit since I never knew where or when I would need quick access to a tidy and private stall. But what if I expanded my research to the entire island? And categorized the lists according to not just cleanliness, but also friendly to, let’s say, hookups? Cleaning up after an accidental coffee spills on the train? Best for vomiting? Ones with condoms? Tampons? Fresh mints? Luxury bathrooms easily accessed in hotel lobbies? Restrooms frequented by celebrities?

I never wrote the book, but it’s on my list of “good ideas that could have made me money if only I wasn’t so lazy.”

Which leads to …

Random Fact #4

I practically invented Facebook. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who knew me in 1999. Especially my parents … because they like to brag about that almost as much as they like to say I was a “White House intern.” Which I wasn’t … I was a “volunteer.” You don’t need to watch Scandal to know that Washington has a hierarchy. A hierarchy, people. That said, I was a volunteer in the White House the same time Monica was an intern.

Back to Facebook and how I missed an opportunity to be a gajillionaire.

In 1999, a half a year or so before the internet bubble burst, I built on my Dell computer and maintained all on my own from my one bedroom apartment on Prince Street a web site called oldcampfriends.com. I came up with the idea because I was obsessed and preoccupied with my overnight camp experience and friends and figured other people were, too. This was before you could Google stalk anyone or pay $9.99 for a dossier on them. It was difficult, still, to track down old friends.

I built it on the old Homestead site builder online software. I created a form that people filled in and submitted. I HAND-FILLED in the information (their names and email addresses) on the profile pages I created for each camp: Camp Wekeela, Camp Wohelo, Pine Forest, Camp Anawana, Camp Ramah New England, Camp Nah-Jee-Way, Che-Na-Wah, Moshava, you name it. Your camp was there. Via oldcampfriends.com you were able to reconnect with your bunkmate, your first kiss, the counselor you always wanted to hook up with but who was too fearful of arrest … Oldcampfriends.com? It took you there.

Coulda been Facebook. Coulda been Facebook.

oldcampfriends screen shot 3

(Those hikers at the top were animated GIFs.)

If oldcampfriends.com leaves any legacy it is to illustrate how impactful the people who have passed through my life have been and continue to be even after they’re gone. It is to show that when you leave me — because leave me you must — you don’t ever really leave.

Random Fact #5

You remain inside me — sometimes as acid reflux, sometimes as tingles that recur when I look at your picture or handle between my thumbs the friendship bracelet you once wove for me in the arts and crafts cabin, or the mixed tape you made me that summer. You remain inside me, as a song or a slow dance or as a scene from a movie we watched together on Betamax in your basement. You remain inside me; sometimes as an eternal punishment, sometimes as an occasional pleasure. You remain.

Random fact: I am forever tagged by you.

You, the people.

==

I tag Sarah, Nina, Judy, Tienne, and Jason.

Writer’s block

I wrote a poem

I wrote a poem

I want to shout it but I won’t

I wrote a poem.

*

I wrote a poem

A simple poem

I ache to cry but hold it back

I wrote a poem.

*

I wrote a poem

Just a poem

It’s not my best, but it’s not half bad

I wrote a poem.

*

I wrote a poem

Thank God, a poem

Was almost sure the well’d dried up

But I wrote a poem.

*

It’s just a poem

I know, a poem

but I dare believe, it’s cleared the way

for another poem.