“In two dreams last night, I opened closets to discover things had gone missing.”
Learn what happens next by reading my latest creative nonfiction piece published yesterday on District Lit.
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Do you remember the first time you saw the moon during the day? I don’t, but every time I notice it hovering half or full in a blue sky, I am startled in the same way I must have been then.
What are you doing there? I want to say to the afternoon moon. It’s not your time yet.
Look! I’ll shout instead if I am with my children, and point up and over to where a partial moon may have been mistaken for a cloud.
How? the youngest one will reply. How can that be?
I don’t know, I tell her. And this is enough.
I am surprised that it is enough.
One day I will choose to remember the first Seder after my parents separated. My mother remembers it as the one in which Ben Saved Passover, but I don’t remember it all. Not the gefilte fish, nor the charoset which at the time surely contained chopped walnuts. Vaguely, I recall an empowered, hip hop rendition of Who Knows One, but I can’t picture the dining room without my father at the head of the table so I am not exactly sure this Seder ever really happened.
= = =
The Seder on Garwood Drive is a red blend. I admit this, which is more than I can say for you. My memory can’t be trusted to discern between a Rosh Hashana in 1986 during which Bubbi (my mother’s mother) and Big Daddy (my father’s father) got into a political debate about Gorbachev, and a Passover in 1985 during which my brother Jason was young enough still to be the dog under the table. The only family holiday dinner I know for certain was not Seder was the Thanksgiving in which Richard ate too much pumpkin pie and there was a mess in the downstairs bathroom afterwards. This has become legend and legends are what remains even after divorce divides.
= = =
In the haggadahs I asked my mother to bring from America to Israel for our Seder tomorrow night there is a note on the inside cover.
I love Marc.
I almost wrote that I don’t remember loving Marc so much I needed to write his name in my Goldberg Passover Haggadah, but then I remembered I did love Marc so much in the obsessive way that compels us to doodle, I just don’t remember being so bold as to write his name out as opposed to his initials — ML — to make his name a mark on the Seder, on future Seders, to turn it into a memory that is retained because it appears year after year, there just before chanting “kadesh, urchatz…”
Marc never did love me back, but “I love Marc” just goes to show that the stories we tell ourselves — whether they be universal or personal — transform from year to year: from bitter to poignant, from painful to pleasant.
The Seder, surely, is a reminder that time passes, but in reliably passing mends the frayed edges between years.
= = =
Shira and I were talking about joy and the Seder because someone asked her to write a blog post about it. I told her that a joyful Seder for me, if I were able to bottle it and spray it all over myself and my family, would be one in which I got to sing all the songs in the tunes I learned in Hebrew school, but I didn’t have to sing alone. It would be one in which my dad made both Bubbi and Big Daddy laugh at the same time with a pun he found inside a commentary from one of the Rabbis. And, you know, they’re both dead, my grandparents, so I don’t mean it literally. It would be a Seder before Nini got sick and before Big Daddy lost his ability to eat kugel without tremors, because those memories get in the way of joy a bit. I prefer the years before cancer and Parkinson’s (and sorry, before Evelyn, my grandfather’s second wife) when Big Daddy and I used to argue about which tune to use for Chad Gadya. These days, imagining my grandfather’s old school, spit-filled Ashkenazi pronunciations of what one little goat can do puts a gentle smile on my face.
A joyful Seder would certainly involve brisket, but more important it would be minus the food allergies, minus worry at all. It’s selfish, I know, to wish for a Seder in which I don’t have to worry — not about the food, nor the order, nor the harmony between my children. But if I am being honest, a joyful Seder would be one in which the only thing required of me is to look fancier than normal and to lead the family in song. If I could bottle it and spray it, this would be my joyful, midlife Seder. One so joyful, this time around, I promise to wash the dishes.
In my house, the lighting is bad except for when it is good which is typically in the morning and I have drawn open the curtains which are in truth metal slats that rise up and down when I tug on a length of canvas. All the fixtures in this house, in the kitchen and bathrooms especially, must have been chosen in sorrow for the light they emit is the shade one wants to sit under when one is temporarily broken by life or haunted by regret.
When I found out this house was built by a couple in love, but finished only by one of them after they decided it wasn’t working out, I suddenly understood why I couldn’t see myself in the mirror no matter how sunny the day; why the tiles in the guest bathroom look filthy no matter how much time I spend on my knees with the Israeli brand of Brillo trying to scrub them clean. I understood why the side yard was decorated with pottery shards instead of ornamental pebbles and why the foundation of the second side porch was still exposed, its rusty innards testament to what might have been, but would never be …complete.
We rent this house, we rent this house, we rent this house, I chant, every time I pluck my eyebrows in front of a hand mirror next to the open window. I chant it when I wipe down fingerprints from the walls and when I jam my own finger in between the warped window screen and the pain. I mean pane.
As if being transitory is a salve, as if a makeshift home is not a real home and therefore, who I am in it, not a real me.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’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.
The first milestone that seemed so far away into the future that hover boards would surely have come and gone by then was 1999, the year my middle brother was slated to graduate college and my baby brother would be bar mitzvahed. I remember giggling along with my parents in 1988 or 89 at the unimaginable idea of Jason in a cap and gown, and baby Josh, who was then still in diapers, grown up enough to not only talk, but sing Torah troupe in front of an audience of kippah-wearing spectators.
As I don’t have to tell you, 1999 has come and gone in the proverbial blink of my hazel green eyes and no hover boards. (Robert Zemeckis was ill-advised, I guess. Or just a hopeful dreamer.)
Jason’s cap has long ago been thrown high into the air and his gown recycled. He’s a successful professional now, married with children. And Baby Josh led the entire morning Shabbat service, squeaky voice and all, and 15 years later is now a freshly-minted lawyer, and recently engaged.
As much as I sometimes still see myself in my mind’s eye as the girl swiveling in a chair at the kitchen table and laughing in the face of the future, I am somehow here (or there. Whichever one is the future.)
I am a married woman and not only are my own three children all able to ride bikes, dive into the deep end of the pool, and tie their own shoes, but I sent my youngest off today on the bus to her first day of real school.
It’s a serendipitous junction I’ve arrived at: I just turned 40 last month. This week, I will celebrate the bar mitzvah year of my marriage. And today, all three of my children have officially made it to elementary school.
I blinked, I guess. Again.
Or else this day was so very far away into the future, I never got the chance to imagine it.
I love photography even though I’ve never been as good at the art as I might have liked; might have been. I’m grateful — seriously, grateful — to Instagram, for allowing me an outlet for the scenes I capture in my mind’s eye and feel compelled to share, but hardly ever render to my satisfaction on a traditional camera.
I took photography as an elective in high school — learned how to develop my own film (not very well), and presumably how to properly use a camera. Whatever I learned there didn’t stick, however, and now I find more pleasure in photography as a researcher than as a voyeur. Although I imagine there is an element of voyeurism to my research, as well.
I love the evidence photography provides. I love the secrets revealed. I love the accidental body of information that corroborates or undermines the collective or individual stories we tell ourselves.
As I dig up old photographs in my cardboard boxes, or in the basement storage room of my mother’s house, I’m getting an education on the people I love … and who loved me. But almost as often as questions are answered or light is shed; there are mysteries. There are, in those photographs, chapters to the stories of my life that were never told to me.
On a recent trip to New Jersey to visit my family, I discovered a photo album my mother acquired when my Bubbi died a couple of years ago. The album chronicled a European trip — the only one, I think — my grandmother took with her aunt when she was in her late forties or early fifties.
Though I can’t be sure, I imagine this trip must have been monumental for my grandmother, who grew up poor in the Midwest; who was a small school girl when she was forced to care for her ill mother and eventually watch her die; who was shifted from relative to relative as her father journeyed from town to town for business. Her Aunt Edna (her mother’s sister) never married, and was very generous to my grandmother over the years (it’s believed Aunt Edna made a small fortune by investing early in Xerox). The two were very fond of each other. Beyond that, and beyond the little I know about Aunt Edna (she was a school teacher and an author), I don’t know much more about the intricacies of their relationship. I do remember my Bubbi, in her younger days, often going out west to Indiana to visit Aunt Edna. I also remember once meeting Aunt Edna myself in the lobby of the hotel in Philadelphia for which my grandmother worked for many years: She was perched on a velvet-lined settee and looked like an Aunt Edna. She called me Jennifer, as did most of my grandparents’ friends.
The pages of the photo album my Bubbi created are filled mostly by blurry, over-exposed shots of the landscape, of the sites, of the Coliseum, Venice, the streets of Paris, and presumably, the Alps. There are only three photographs of Bubbi in the album and four or five of Aunt Edna. There is one of somebody’s hand — opening up a compact, perhaps? Getting ready to put on lipstick? — as the other snapped a shot of windmills out the window of a tour bus.
There are no captions. No notes on the backs of the matte photographs. No written word at all. There are a few blank postcards — one with a watercolor of Buckingham Palace; another from an Italian resort.
What do I learn about my Bubbi from this album? Other than the fact that she was more traveled than I thought, I am presented with more questions than answers.
Did she slide the photos in under the cellophane and never look at them again?
Did she take the album out, every year on her birthday, reminisce and long for a different sort of life?
Was she grateful for this trip? Satisfied? Or did it only give her a taste for more?
I knew my Bubbi pretty well as far as Bubbis and granddaughters go. I took an interest in her life while she was still with it enough to recall it. But she never told me about the trip to Europe she once took with Aunt Edna. Never recalled the windmills or the Hotel Napoleon or the view from the Spanish Steps.
Of course, there are so many stories we never share; never tell. Not even the ones we love. Not even the ones who ask.
In fact, it’s often the stories closest to our hearts we keep for ourselves.
=== === ===
If you liked this post, you might also like this one; also about Bubbi and about photographic evidence.
It’s likely I will never
the passage of time.
By the time
I will have passed time.
like the express train.
some I know
become blurred colors
along a tiled wall.
once tiled too in a mosaic of sorts
and all that is left is a private joke
as private as can be
because it’s with me now.
I see myself at the turnstile
at the 18th Street station.
What do I do?
I can’t get on the local now.
It’s too late.
I have to let her go.
She’ll be fine, I whisper.
That’s what her colors tell me.