I know what I know if you know what I mean

I am a reformed know-it-all.

I used to roll around in knowledge like a warm Dunkin Donut munchkin in powdered sugar. I wanted to be covered in it and then I wanted you to lick me.

Because I knew something. And if I knew it, you should know it, too. Then all our lives would be better.

My knowing has always been a well-intentioned sort.

It didn’t matter what the knowing was: At some points in my life, the knowing was boys. At others, it was Judaism or organized religion. At another junction, it was true love. And at yet another, it was friendship.

I knew what I knew and knowing it made me right. Being right made me feel safe. Not just on-the-surface safe — not the kind of safe we feel when we double-lock our doors or put on seat belts. No, a kind of subconscious, impregnable bubble of well-being that convinced me I knew people and I knew the world and I knew what should be done to make things right or better or good.

Then, something happened. Someone convinced me that there were things I didn’t know. Not only that, someone convinced me there were things I could never know — like what it was like to live during the French Revolution or what it felt like to be in the 2004 tsunami — no matter how much studying I did; no matter how much learning; no matter, even, how much listening. Some things are just unknowable because they are unique experiences. Even if, God forbid, I one day faced a tsunami, it would never be the 2004 tsunami. No matter how many videos on YouTube I watch, I am still an observer.  No matter how many poignant blogs I read, I am still only a participant in my own experience. And so therefore, there is a distinction to be made between what I know and what I know.

Once I knew this — once I knew this — I looked at life very differently. My experience of life and people changed when I understood “I know what I know” and when I accepted “I know there are things I will never know.”

There are things I cannot possibly know no matter how loving, how compassionate, how empathetic, how caring, how interested, how hungry I am. And this matters because it impacts my point of view, it affects how I see the world, people, opportunities, challenges, and risks.

My life changed because I stepped out towards life then as a curious observer; the kind of curious observer we are all born as and remain until life teaches us over and over again to be afraid.

Afraid of being out of control.

Afraid of being in danger.

Afraid of looking stupid.

Afraid of being stupid.

Afraid of being unloved.

Afraid of being unloveable.

You know the list … it’s longer than this.

This isn’t to say I am always acting as the curious observer. Today, for instance, as a man walked out into the street directly in front of my moving car, I thought immediately, “idiot!” But the curious observer now sits in the passenger seat and says, “maybe he had a belly ache and was rushing to the bathroom.” What she doesn’t say, but I know is, “Remember when you did that once?”

The thing is: the frightened know-it-all is constantly whispering from the passenger seat. Remnants of her will float up from deep inside me as ego-scented vibrational waves. Usually this happens when I am on social media or in heated conversations with my husband or my mother. The frightened know-it-all is sensitive to emotions, especially rejection and accusation. She is reactive, especially when under duress. She is only, after all, trying to keep me safe.

But she no longer can hang out there ruling like a queen bee on the playground of my life, one that is indeed filled with mines, but probably less dangerous than I perceive. The curious observer is there, too, asking questions; waiting for answers before stepping out.

 

What I imagine when I imagine the end of the world

Short Fiction

When I imagine the end of the world, I am alone at the edge of a cliff. It’s evening and God Only Knows by the Beach Boys is playing on a box radio I looted from my neighbor’s basement.

If it were a movie, I’d be gazing out over the city lights of Los Angeles just as the electricity went out, as one by one the skyscrapers lost power, and the city fell dark.

A blazing comet approaches.

Or a neon green burst of light from beyond the reaches of time.

Or a giant tidal wave shimmies up the coast.

If it were a movie, my heart would swell as I accepted my fate. I would open my arms and embrace humanity’s extinction for I knew I had lived life to its fullest.

But it’s not a movie.

It’s my real life.

In which almost every day is the end of the world.

* * *

 

I have a disease without a name.

If it had a name, it would be called something like redemptionitis or zombisteria or hypotrychtapocalypse.

The closest anyone has ever come to labelling my disease was in the years leading up to the much-publicized end of the Mayan Calendar in December 2012.

Doomsday Phobia, they called it.

Anyone who stocked their basements with toilet paper and canned sardines in preparation for Armageddon; anyone who hoarded books of medicinal herbs or learned how to forage for mushrooms in a weekend workshop held in the back woods of Westchester County, NY; anyone who stocked in the back of the medicine cabinet antibiotics from their child’s most recent prescription for strep throat: We were all quietly laughed at and labeled “preppers.”

Back when it was cute, the way a touch of crazy is cute, as long as it doesn’t lead to a shootout in a movie theater.

Back then, I wondered to myself if I was on a CIA watch list. Did they suspect me? A suburban New Jersey mom of two? A college educated professional with a real job and a real paycheck?

I certainly didn’t fit the profile.

I wore Ann Taylor suits and took the NJ Transit train every day from the suburbs into the city where I walked six blocks to my midtown workplace. In our open floor plan, I had the closest thing to an office – a transparent cube looking out over the East River, made from glass walls so others could look in. It was called the Rainbow Fish Bowl because of the stickers my daughter once placed on the sliding glass door. Every other Friday, I got a pedicure at Trudy’s Green Nails on Lexington Avenue. I was in a book club. I volunteered at the preschool. People liked me.

Each day, I put effort into smiling at my coworkers as if life wasn’t about to abruptly end by Avian Bird Flu.  I’d make jokes over the phone with the sales consultants who’d ask me if I thought wheatgrass was gluten free. I played along. Drank Nespresso in the coffee room with the writers; made snide remarks with the editors about our wacky advertisers; especially the ones who placed ads offering organic MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) purported to last 15 years. Secretly, I wondered if it made sense to pay for organic canned food when the cans were probably lined with BPA.

Could my coworkers view my computer monitor, however, they would have noticed I spent half the day reading headlines on alternative news web sites, corresponding in code with people named “Zen Grower” about the latest UFO sighting over New Mexico or the best price on bulk dehydrated food. I read blogs from people living in half-completed bunkers in the mountains of West Virginia; with strangers supposedly privy to knowledge that was never reported on CNN.  “The ‘Illuminati’ kills scientists, you know,” wrote Jade, my telepathic friend. She communicates with an alien race who is trying to save us from another alien race who’s been trying to destroy us since the Revolutionary War. “All war,” says Jade, “is the fault of the Reptilians.”

I would search “new world order Russian scientists reveal underwater pyramid” and “fourth dimensional beings plot to reprogram our brains” because I knew the search results would give me the intel I required to plan. And I planned. I had one to-do list that included vaccinations, playdates, and dentist appointments. Another to-do list for the end of the world.

My day job, I guess, was a ruse.

It was a way to satisfy my compulsion and still remain a member of society. Or so says Dr. Solomon. I saw it as a healthy way to educate myself on tactics I would surely need for the post-apocalyptic world I was certain was looming. Easily-learned skills like:

  • Reiki for when we no longer had the option to see surgeons for bone breaks or muscle sprains;
  • Acupressure, which I would use in the place of the anti-inflammatories we so depended on in the Before Times for headaches and menstrual cramps;
  • Nutritional supplements and herbal teas — like Chia and Flax seeds; dandelion and feverfew — I’d grow in a rooftop urban garden, where I’d herd my children before the Flood.

Back then, I was Advertising Director of a major national healthy living magazine. I courted and secured advertisers from multiple sectors: home and garden, health and wellness, exercise and fitness, diet and nutrition. And, of course, our bestsellers: classifieds from personal vegan chefs, Hindu tantric sex practitioners and Henna artists.

I was really good at my job. I was good at selling ads because I really believed all of the service providers and multi-level marketing professionals.  When they heard acknowledgment and acceptance in my voice over the phone, they eagerly placed half or more of their advertising budget in my hands.

I understood them, after all. Their fears. Their hopes. I knew intimately what it felt like to want to survive, but more so to want to be listened to and believed.

In my own experience, though, there were therapies and products that worked, and those that didn’t. Quackery, some might say. Except in my business, we never use the word quackery. This would alienate the chiropractors and homeopaths who placed half-page color ads for their self-published e-books.

Reiki, for instance, didn’t cure me of recurring yeast infections, as promised. But my Thursday afternoon sessions with Liane, the psychic massage therapist did help identify a sugar addiction. She also told me I had powers like hers; that I could, if I wanted to, study to be a healer.

She was right. I am a sugar addict. But she was also wrong. I can’t seem to heal anyone.

I kept seeing Liane on a regular basis and even believed most of the stories she would tell me: How her client was miraculously cured from testicular cancer by shiatsu and a six-week juice fast. How her deep tissue hot stone massage helped a couple overcome infertility. How the couple now had triplets – all girls.

I believed Liane. Except for that one time she told me that my migraines were the key to time travel, and that I should stop taking the Relert when the auras came on. I also believed the magazine readers who emailed testimony after testimony to our editorial staff profusely thanking us for publishing stories that changed their lives.  I believed the clippable lists we elegantly designed for ease-of-use, like “Pema Chodron’s Top 5 Mantras for Mindful Sex.”

I believed we were helping people.

I believed the jacket copy on the bestseller of contributing editor, celebrity physician Dr. Joel Willey– a book I personally reviewed for the magazine last December — promising increased sexual desire and stamina for peri-menopausal women by switching to a vegan, carbohydrate-free, anti-inflammatory diet.

I believed it all.

Which, apparently, is a symptom of my disease.

I have a disease without a name; without a designation, but with a host of exhibiting symptoms that collectively, for the past fifteen years, I called “conscious living,” but collectively make up a manilla folder of evidence against me, sitting on an antique desk in Dr. Solomon’s office.

All these “symptoms,” which were formerly advantageous qualities on a resume when applying for a job at a natural healthy living magazine, are now being offered up as evidence of my insanity. My inability to continue as a functioning member of society.

My disease is without a name. It’s as lonely as a woman standing on the edge of a cliff waiting for the world to end.

But, as it turns out, no name is necessary.

* * *

 

This work of fiction is an excerpt from an original short story by Jen Maidenberg, “What I imagine when I imagine the end of the world.”

When you don’t have anything to say

This time of year in Israel is often uncomfortable for me.

I won’t say difficult, because it seems highly inappropriate to label anything in my life as “difficult” in the same breath as I speak of the Holocaust, of war, of fallen youth.

But it’s uncomfortable.

In very quick succession, we here in Israel — we being newspaper-reading adults and school-going children — are inundated with Holocaust-related content, followed quickly and intensively by war-related content.

This is the time of year when Israelis mark why we are Israeli, and not Jews of the Diaspora.

It’s important, Yom HaShoah. It is.  Benji Lovitt says it better than I could why Holocaust education is important even in a country saturated both by memory and study of the atrocity.

Yom HaZikaron, the day we remember Israel’s fallen soldiers is important, too. Especially in a country that still has compulsory military service; in a country where soldiers still fall, even those who aren’t in active duty.

But as someone who is not connected directly to the Holocaust (in that I do not have a known blood relative who was killed or who survived the camps); and as someone not connected directly to Israel’s wars for survival (I did not serve in the army, nor has anyone I know personally fallen in service, thank God), I often find myself feeling more dissonance than patriotism during these weeks of remembrance.

And inside that dissonance is the very bad taste of shame. The shame of survival, I think. Those of us who didn’t experience the Holocaust personally, or grow up with a parent who survived; those of us who didn’t serve in the army: We are not without survivor’s guilt, survivor’s shame, so it seems.

Or at least, I am not.

And it is during these few weeks in Israel that I face this.

It bubbles up as an awkwardness, as an inauthenticity. I’m tempted to stay home during the small ceremonies on Hannaton marking these solemn days. I am even tempted to stay home on Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s joyous Independence Day) because I feel as much an outsider on that holiday, if not more, than on the others. I don’t yet — and may never — feel that overwhelming sensation that “this land is mine, God gave this land to me.”

But this is how I face my awkwardness, my shame. It’s simple:

I show up.

Last night, for the first time in our three years living here, I showed up to the Yom HaShoah ceremony, much of which I didn’t understand because the survivor accounts were in a Hebrew a little too over my head.

I also stand up.

Just like everyone else, just like my boys dressed in white today, just like the businessmen in suits driving down the highway to meetings in Tel Aviv at 10 am, I stood up when the sirens wailed.

And I will again next week when they wail for Yom HaZikaron.

I show up and I stand up. And I think that’s pretty much all one can do when one is not really sure what to do.

Honor the fallen. Honor the memories. Honor the tradition.

 

 

 

Husband Envy

It’s not the first time I daydreamed I was

Nicole Krauss, authoress

all-around good

woman good Jewish but not so Jewish

writer I could aspire towards

and as a matter of curiosity

exactly one day

(perhaps only hours!)

older than I.

But today most of all

when I learned husband

Jonathan

Safran

Foer

(even his name sounds groovy out loud with line breaks forcing teeth against my lips)

cuts up old books to make

new books

Fresh! Magical!

I thought I couldn’t stand to

be me another day

I just want to be Nicole Krauss

just to be married to a man

who thinks up cutting up

old books to make new ones

who writes books called

Extremely Loud

Incredibly Close

and then writes a book

about not Eating Animals

because sometimes he

doesn’t eat them

out of kindness or conviction

and then – to top it all off with an all-natural maraschino cherry –

lives in Park Slope and wears

smart but sexy glasses.

I imagine him sitting there

next to her

at a wooden desk in their house in Brooklyn

(the desk was his

found at an antiques shop in New Paltz)

separating their two laptops is an

antique robin blue typewriter

maybe even with Hebrew letters like

the one I drooled over but

didn’t haggle over

(4000 shekels!)

in the artist’s colony in the Golan Heights.

There is an imposed silence every week day

in Chez Safran Foer Krauss

from 8 am to 12:45 for

Writing Time.

They write and write and write

while sipping organic espresso

a matter that is serious to both of them

but they’re considering giving up

because of stomachaches.

On Wednesdays they listen to

Van Morrison for inspiration.

On Fridays he makes her a spinach and goat cheese omelette

and takes out the recyclables

and this is their life

I imagine

unless one of their kids is sick –

then she is downstairs

on the couch watching

Phineas and Ferb and

gritting her teeth in

frustrated agony

the way writers who are also

mothers grit their teeth.

She considers calling the nanny

but she won’t while he is upstairs cutting up

old books

to make new books

new stories.

She’ll wait.

Or that’s what I’d do.

Wait and wait and wait

and grit teeth

until Wednesday when the fever breaks

and she takes

her laptop

to the café down the corner

and stays there

til the sun goes down

til closing time

so he can sing the kids to sleep

and she can see if her Wikipedia page

is longer than his or

for once write a novel on the napkins

like she’s wanted to for

the last three years

and glue them together

with Juicy Fruit gum.

Fresh! Magical!

Sometimes, she writes

in her journal

how she wishes the internet would break

so she could start over

and find the wooden desk

in New Paltz first.

Or marry a carpenter.

And this is when

I understand why

she is keeping her name

and writing poetry again

and practicing the Law of Attraction

on the door to the cafe

daydreaming it’s a portal

to that kibbutz she volunteered on

in the summer of 1990-something

a kibbutz in the Lower Galilee

a lemon tree in the front yard

that looks remarkably

like the one I see

through my bathroom window.