The winner will only be announced at the end of the summer, but for now I’m pretty excited to join the high-caliber writers of nonfiction on the list of finalists for the Autumn House Press 2016 full-length book contest.
Cross your fingers…
The winner will only be announced at the end of the summer, but for now I’m pretty excited to join the high-caliber writers of nonfiction on the list of finalists for the Autumn House Press 2016 full-length book contest.
Cross your fingers…
I don’t know if I said it because of the dream or if I dreamt it because I was bound to say it later, but I said it and only after did I realize that it didn’t matter if the dream preceded the belief or the belief the dream.
* * *
What matters more than the man in the dream — a composite of men I have loved — is the woman who jumped so high as to be seen from the carved out window of the plane I was flying in.
She is not me. She was too tall to be me. And yet her hair …
What am I supposed to glean from her loose and long dirty blond hair, from the bohemian dress that floated up above her knees like a parachute each time she leapt from the valley as if the earth below was her trampoline? And what about the mountains, which were not the mountains of Denver, Colorado or the Golan Heights, mountains I have seen directly, both from above and below, but were, I am certain, the mountains of a European country, Spain or Portugal, a country in which there are less Jews than in the countries I am familiar with, countries I might even dare to call my homes?
What matters more than the man in the dream — who brought me to near tears with his collection of short stories recognizable as anecdotes from his childhood — is the woman who was sitting in the row ahead of me on the plane. She, too, saw the leaper, but she was not fazed. “I’ve seen her before,” the woman ahead of me noted. “We’re friends.”
She is not me, either. She was not Jewish enough. And she was also tall, even when seated.
Perhaps, what matters more is the man in the dream — perhaps, he is me.
* * *
Perhaps, I believed it and dreamed it both. Neither one before the other. Neither one bound to be first.
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.
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
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.
I am not a music-while-I-work kinda girl. While writing or editing, music typically gets in my way. Instead of focusing on the project, I’ll often sing along or find my mind wandering back to a time before.
This morning, however, as I sat in front of the screen, I realized I needed music to kickstart my week and opened YouTube whose imaginary panel of advisors recommended a few playlists to me based on my previous choices; but all were from albums I knew would distract me from the careful proofreading I was required to perform.
The last option in the row of recommended playlists was one I haven’t listened to … in almost forever: America’s Greatest Hits.
I recognized the album cover as one that used to be among my parents’ combined record collection that moved to the finished basement once they purchased a stereo with a cassette player for the living room. I remember only really discovering these records, though — Kansas, The Eagles, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Croce — the summer I turned ten and went off to sleepaway camp. Music, from that summer on, became the soundtrack to my memories. Music became longing.
That summer, now that I think about it, was also when I first discovered my own taste for music. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate music before — some of my earliest memories are singing harmonies in the backseat of my father’s car with my brother. But what I remember about discovering the record collection is understanding that music is not just words and melody strung together; it’s a legacy. There was a reason why certain songs ended up sung around a campfire. There was a reason why I laid on my back on the Berber carpet in the basement while Photographs and Memories crackled over the speakers, filling me with a certain sense of sorrow.
The only title familiar to me on America’s Greatest Hits.before I pressed play was “A Horse With No Name.” But as I faced the screen to review the manuscript I was working on and as the album moved along, I found myself humming along knowingly from time to time — curious that I had stumbled upon an album that was both surprisingly and pleasantly familiar, but neutral enough to allow me to stay focused on the task at hand. (Ironic since many of the songs are, indeed, about longing.)
This music, unlike my mixed tapes which seem to always jolt me back, kept me rooted in the present, but still subtly soothed by the comforts of home. Not the home I am often drawn back to — the emotionally-charged home of Milan Kundera or Proust. Home without the overwhelming nostalgia. Without the compelling need to look back.
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.
Don’t believe a word of it.
Not a letter.
Not even a space or a hard return.
None of it is to be trusted nor considered true.
At best, one or two or ten of my words will last longer than the quart of 1% cow’s milk shoved into a crusty corner of my ornery fridge.
I repeat; my song is sung in tune for the length of a long exhale.
After that, it’s expired.
I am hungry and so I hate food.
I am full and so the peach tree growing in my front yard is a gift.
I am tired and so I wish my children away from me.
I am rested and so my children are the suns and moons and stars and fairy dust of my existence.
I am needy and so my husband is my rock.
I am complete and so I want to run away.
I am pretty and so I strut the city streets.
I am old and so I hide in a darkened room behind the pages of a paperback.
I am smart and so I shout all my wisdom and thrust forward my chest.
I am a fool and so I cry the tears of someone who wasted her life away.
I am loved and so I write a poem.
I am lost and so I write a poem.
I hardly blog about parenting anymore.
It’s not because I don’t have opinions to share or thoughts to express. It’s that I finally arrived at a place where I understand that most of what I say or think about parenting is either obvious or worthless.
Obvious to the older or more veteran demographic who, at best, might compassionately respond to what I write with a nod, “Oh yes, I remember that time of life.”
Worthless to the younger or less experienced demographic who, at best, can’t possibly imagine ever being in my situation, so focused they are on the stage of life, couplehood or parenting they are in right now.
I suppose, too, when it comes to parenting, I find my voice so boring I can’t even stand to read what I write.
This is when you should stop writing about a topic.
At least, this is when I should.
So I did. For a while.
Instead, I expressed my Parent Self through photographs and filters; as I tried to filter through what it meant that I no longer wanted to express myself as a parent.
I think I figured it out.
I stopped caring so much.
Which is unimaginable to me considering how much I used to
How all-consumed I was as a mother.
How all-consuming my children were.
(“Yes, you were,” say my Greek chorus of family and friends in unison from the shadows of my not-so-distant past.)
But I got tired of caring.
Wiped out. Sucked dry. Milk gone.
From my breasts. From my galaxy.
There I was (there I am)
a heap of flesh, in desperate need of my own nourishment.
In need of someone like me to care so much about my needs, my safety, my future.
To hang my art on the refrigerator door.
To give me a Time Out.
To tie my hair back in a long, silky ribbon
and kiss me softly, with no expectations, in that region of my neck below the ear.
* * *
I just finished reading Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, an author whose work I always love, always connect to. In the book, the main character is a mother of two very young children. She, like I was when my kids were infants and toddlers, is all-consumed by her role as mother. She wants to be not just a good mother, not only the best mother, but a mother IN CONTROL.
Because life, and more specifically parenting, is too overwhelming otherwise. At least for those of us like Kate (the main character) whose lives are precariously balanced between intuition and anxious uncertainty. At least for those of us who believe our children are a reflection of our commitment to parenting them.
On the one hand, I related very much to this character. I used to be her, to the smallest, organic, breastfeeding detail. On the other hand, I found her annoying and shrill. It’s clear the author does, too. In fact, she references just how shrill Kate is and sounds on more than one occasion. It’s clear, too, Sittenfeld is on the otherside of “all-consuming motherhood.” She is, in a way, mocking Kate. Lovingly so.
It was in the reading of the book that I fully understood (and admitted to myself) how I feel a tiny bit embarrassed by her. Not by Kate, but my Me. The former Me. The one who cared too much.
And how I feel a tiny bit ashamed of Her. Not the Her I used to be. Me. Now. The Her who doesn’t care so much.
I don’t really want to be either of them. Her then or Me now.
I want to be somewhere else.
* * *
The older demographic of my readers will likely nod at this post, “Oh yes, I remember that time of life.” That in between space. That desperation for nourishment. That guilt for wanting Me back so badly. The conflict between loving these children so much I can’t stand it and wanting them to leave the house RIGHT NOW so i can write so I can read so I can nourish myself. Me Me Me.
The younger demographic of my readers will likely have already stopped reading at the first paragraph, so all-consumed and convinced they are that their choices today directly impact tomorrow. So sure they are, as I was, that tomorrow will be intact and unassailable for their children if only they pay close enough attention.
And again, I am bored by my words. Turned off even as I write them. Swearing off, once again, blogging about parenting.
But I won’t forsake my Greek Chorus their collective voice. Their somewhat smug, somewhat compassionate nods.
I won’t assume that I am the only mother in that in between space.
I’ll leave a trail of pebbles so that you may find your way to me and tell me I’m not alone.
Tell me you remember that time.
Tell me you are in it right now.
Tell me you too are tired.
Tell me my children will forgive me my selfishness.
Tell me I will fill up again.
Tell me I will be more than this.
I give up knowing it all.
I give it up.
It’s not the first time I daydreamed I was
Nicole Krauss, authoress
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
(even his name sounds groovy out loud with line breaks forcing teeth against my lips)
cuts up old books to make
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
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
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
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
unless one of their kids is sick –
then she is downstairs
on the couch watching
Phineas and Ferb and
gritting her teeth in
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
to make new books
Or that’s what I’d do.
Wait and wait and wait
and grit teeth
until Wednesday when the fever breaks
and she takes
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.
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.
This is my question today.
And usually every Wednesday.
Why does my story matter?
Okay, so I can weave words in a way sometimes
that makes you almost cry
that makes you remember the time you had blintzes in that cafe on 2nd Avenue
that makes you look frantically in the closet for the sundress you know you didn’t sell at Buffalo Exchange — you know it, you just know it, but where IS it — for a pair of people earrings that looked like the ones you got at Accessory Place with babysitting money
that makes you comb the recesses of your mind for the smell of your grandmother’s perfume
that makes you wish you didn’t throw away your walkman
or your diary from 5th grade the one with the pink plastic cover that you got for free with a magazine subscription that said
“I got my period today.”
Sometimes I do that to you.
I make you remember.
Is that enough to make my story matter?
Sometimes I write what comes to me and what comes to you is like what comes to me
and it makes you miss someone
or kiss someone
or call someone
or, better yet, write them a letter
or draw them a picture or make them a mixed tape.
Or send them back the mixed tape they made for you once.
Or twelve of them.
Does that make my story matter?
I wonder why I write.
I wonder my story matters.
I wonder why it can’t just live inside me
just inside me
What must I tell you?
Why must I make sense of it?
Why must I
make it beautiful
Why must I?
Art begets art, don’t you think?
Of course, we may disagree on the definition of art. But I find the more I notice, the more I notice.
The more I write, the more I photograph, the more I dream.
The more I read, the more I feel, the more I write.
When you open up — even just a little — to noticing and noting, you are actually working your art muscle.
What I say is not new. It’s not an original thought. Many more experienced at attracting art have said it before I just did.
But I notice it happening to me.
I see poetry in my photographs, and color in my poems. The art of one lends itself to the other, and suddenly I feel as if I am getting somewhere.
It’s not that I am a constant rushing stream of good art. Some of it is just purge.
Pages filled with strike outs.
I look like this sometimes.
But then I laugh at myself. At my #selfie.
And I share it with you.
And my nervous heart strengthens a bit when you laugh along with me… in the knowing fully that you understand I’m half joking.
* * *
There’s something that gets in my way, though.
Thinking. Too much thinking. About getting somewhere with my art.
This, too, I notice.
It’s like that moment when I realize I am lucid dreaming and I know if I think too hard about it, I will wake up. So I try not to think — just breathe, I say — but this in itself is thinking.
Out of the dream.
Or, more simply, it’s like losing your cross-eyed stare once you finally become aware of the 3D image in a Magic Eye design. I see it! You cry. Then,
Back to staring at blurry peacock feathers.
What’s the real magic trick?
Minding your thinking, I suppose.
Noticing it, yes, but allowing thoughts to float away as easily as the 3D Magic Eye design.
Blur it away on purpose.
Master this, and become a Master.
I let go of Shira yesterday.
I called her up on the phone, walked over to her house, met her on the path there, and let her go.
So did I.
It was swell.
I had in my hand 18 year old Shira.
With love, I gave her back. To 40 year old Shira.
Some would call this surreal. Others would call it silly. I call it an extraordinary gift.
How did it happen?
In my cardboard boxes, I found letters. Shoeboxes filled with letters. Composition notebooks bookmarked for years with unsealed envelopes torn open by younger hands. Manilla folders stuffed with old exams, but peppered here and there by notes unsigned; the author’s identity only revealed by her handwriting.
I found a few from Shira. (Even if she didn’t live across the street from me here on this kibbutz in Israel, I would have recognized her 18 year old handwriting. It’s distinct. And handwriting, like phone numbers from childhood, is something I tend to hold on to strongly in my memory.)
The letters were from 1991 and 1992. The summers she and I respectively traveled to Israel for the first time. In 1993, we’d arrive here together one winter break during college as participants on a 2-week volunteer program. We’d be stationed on an army base that’s now less than an hour drive away from where we live.
The letters, when I read them yesterday for the first time in more than 20 years, emphasized a certain awareness I’ve already arrived at on my own.
Shira, I’m so grateful to say, has known two different Jens, maybe three, maybe even four or five, depending on where you slice me.
It’s a gift, indeed. A friend who knew you as a girl. Who knew you when you were thinner, blonder, filled with greater energy than you are now.
But an even greater gift is a friend who notices how much you’ve grown since then. Who knew you when you were less worldly, to say the least, less clever, less kind …and has forgiven you your youth.
In reading the letters, I remembered a younger Jen and a younger Shira, and a much younger friendship. I remembered the moments that punctuated that time. In her short letters — one scribbled in cursive on airmail stationery, another stuffed inside letterhead from her father’s business — our world in ’91 and ’92 came alive for a moment and made me smile. In a different voice than the one I know today, 18 year old Shira reminded me of who we were then. I was touched by the Shira I had forgotten; touched by the Shira I had never known then. I also fell in love for a moment with the Jen I must have been then. A Jen I never knew I was; not at the time.
It’s complicated — the gift of old letters, of old friends — but it’s also so very simple.
I could have thrown them away, the letters. Like I’ve tossed other papers found inside the cardboard boxes.
Instead, I decided to return them to sender.
It seemed symbolically appropriate. I can’t explain it, though I’ll try.
I returned them not because I was certain Shira would want them or need them (though it was a kick to laugh over them for a minute or two), but because handing over Shira to Shira seemed like the right thing to do.
Giving Shira’s letters back to her — instead of holding on to them — allows Shira to be whoever she wants to be in the world. Now.
And forces me, in a way, to accept her as such.
Not the Shira I used to know. Not the Shira who was what she was then. Not the Shira I thought she was yesterday.
Just Shira. Now.
Giving Shira back her letters gave me the opportunity to explore a concept I have great difficulty with (and the chance to practice on someone I knew would make it easy on me!)
The concept? Giving up my past so I can be present.
I can’t say I know what the outcome of this experiment will be. But something about it just seemed right.
Just like, I suppose, something felt right about saving letters in a shoebox.
* * *
This is one in a series of essays inspired by my cardboard boxes. If you like this post, and want to know how it began, read A Case for Hoarding. One post in the series, “Note to Self,” was recently featured on Freshly Pressed. Additional posts are tagged “the boxed set series“.