Liminal Life

lim·i·nal
ˈlimənl/
adjective
  1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

My sister is coming down this weekend to camp in a park near us, and every time she does, I’m reminded how much I miss it, and how close that lifestyle is to at least half of my dreams. I’m a contradiction, I guess, in several of the things I love, but this one in particular stands out and is Continue reading “Liminal Life”

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The spice of life

My grandma used to say “variety is the spice of life.” She said it often and with a twinkle in her eye, but I can’t for the life of me remember the context. She and I were never particularly daring as a duo, though we liked people to think we were. Maybe the words were just her trying to amuse her 50-years-younger grandkid on a Friday night. Probably. But I love the memory of the smile that accompanied them, regardless.

I think, in general, that my grandma had a fairly unhappy life. When she told me stories, they were often traumatic or sad or both. She was once hungry enough to literally eat dirt. She was kidnapped. She was shot. She had cancer. She had bad relationships with her father and her second husband, and her feelings about both of them remained unresolved even years after their deaths.

When she said “variety is the spice of life,” I’m fairly certain that the traumas she experienced and the awful things she felt (and said) were not what she was referencing.  In fact, I actually have no idea what she meant.  I remember loving everything she cooked, but there was never anything surprising or spicy there — not until her first husband moved in (after fifty-some years during which she thought he was dead) and started doing his own cooking, and I was long grown by then.  She never went anywhere except to visit her oldest daughter in Pennsylvania and maybe her sister in Florida once or twice.  Her music was always the same; she never even got rid of the solid oak console television in the living room, because she needed it to listen to her Andy Williams records.  She went to the same church for as long as I can remember.  She parked in the same place, sat on the same side, and said hello to the same two or three people every week for 30 years. She drank a fair bit, but it was always the same thing:  7 & 7.  When the first ex moved back in, she switched to wine.  Aside from one brother, one sister, and a friend she’d had since grade school (but only occasionally liked), she had no friends and no standing social engagements.  She had her hair done once a week by the same stylist from the time I was born til she moved away in her 80s.  Aside from some flower and vegetable gardening in the summer, I have no idea what she did with her time; she hadn’t had a job outside of the house since her kids were little. In retrospect, she always seemed to know more about cleaning and stain removal than anyone should.

Where was the variety?  Where was the spice?

I think sometimes that she must’ve had a very active fantasy life.  In her youth, she was movie star beautiful, and people commented on how stunning she was well into her old age.  Maybe in her dreams all that beauty took her somewhere.  Certainly, she had the material on which to base her imaginings. She had learned to read early, and she often told stories of walking to the library in all kinds of weather.  Her living room bookshelves were the inspiration for my own, and I spent many hours of my childhood inspecting each and every title they held.  I know she read, but I don’t really know when or what.  In later years, I saw her do it only occasionally and never more than 30 minutes at a stretch.  She spent more time with our small town’s morning paper than with any book.  She painted a few things.  She meditated nearly every morning, from the time I was a kid until she moved away.  What did she fantasize about?  I never saw her do anything daring, and I don’t think I ever saw her truly having a good time (though I’ve seen pictures and old videos that make me think there must’ve been some happy times before and soon after my birth).  The only family lore on the subject says that back in the day (the 1960s and 1970s), the brothers and sisters could throw down with the best of them.  At the time, my grandma would’ve been in her 40s and 50s, the oldest of all her siblings.  They sat around in one another’s backyards and basements, drinking and smoking, laughing into the wee hours of morning.

I wonder if she felt like her life was on a downhill slope once she hit 60, if it even took that long. She never seemed particularly happy to be married to the man I called “grandpa,” though they’d known one another for many, many years and even my mom considered him family.  She quit smoking after forty years though it always seemed to be something that brought her joy.  (I wonder if she still measures her life in seven minute segments.)  She didn’t go out.  She played solitaire for hours.  When the first husband came back, she switched to gin rummy.

Where was the variety and spice in her life?  I can only think that it was gone before I ever arrived, although I think we loved one another an awful lot for most of my existence.

I worry, occasionally, about my own life, about what I’ll do with it when I reach whatever age seems deadly and past hope to me.  Maybe — hopefully — I’ll never land where (I think) she is, but people used to always comment on how similar we were.  I worry.   I wonder if I’ll think I did all that I was supposed to do, or if I’ll spend my remaining time daydreaming, wondering like I did when I was 10 if my life had been somehow switched with someone else’s, someone more fortunate or valuable.

But I like to think that for all the books I read, for all the time I spend writing or watching television or playing old computer games….I like to think that my life is spicy and various enough.  I like to think that there are people in my life who make it bigger than just me, people who I love and who love me in return who will remember with me all the ridiculous and wonderful things we did back when we could still hold our liquor.  I like to think I won’t ever be sorry for any of it, and that no one will ever look at me in my old age and think that’s all there is or ever was.  I like to think they’ll know — without a doubt — that I was happy in my life.  There was singing and silliness and joy and love…and all the spice I could’ve ever wanted.

And no matter how boring or unhappy it might have looked to anyone else, I’d like to believe that Gran’s life was happy enough, too. I wish I could go back twenty years, sit with her at her kitchen table, and ask her, nonchalantly, over coffee.
I’d like to imagine that she’d clear her throat, close her hands around the mug, look me in the eye, and be honest.

*Inspired by The Daily Post prompt Spicy

Inspired to nap

Sometimes, I feel a little less than inspired.  Granted, I haven’t let the lack of inspiration stop me in the past couple weeks, but before that, I went months without writing at all.  I’d feel bad about my inaction when I remembered — which was usually about the time I looked in the direction of my bookshelf and caught a glimpse of the beautiful, empty notebooks stashed there — but usually, I really didn’t think about it.  Obviously, my urge to write has not always been so easily forgotten or dismissed.

In high school, for example, I carried a mid-size, spiral Mead notebook wherever I went. I wrote in class and at home, at band rehearsal and play practice.  I didn’t bother to hide what I was doing, and I took more than my share of flak for doing it.  Truth be told, somewhere in the back of my head, I’ve always felt a bit like Harriet the Spy when I carry around my notebooks.  I can write whatever I want and it’s true and no one can debate me on it.  I can think what I want to think and how I want to think it.

Writing in this forum has been an adjustment.

Nowadays, of course, my fallback excuse when I don’t get the writing done is the children, the chores, the cats, Donald Trump, The West Wing, and/or the insurmountable and all important READING LIST.  Naturally, I’m only making these excuses in my own head; I set these arbitrary deadlines and quotas for myself.  No one else is asking for my word count.  But for some reason, it feels important that I (figuratively) get off my ass and do something, in some area of my life.  There’s no two ways about it:  our current political situation (which is also very personal and immediate to me and so many of the people I love) has got me down.  I end up saying “fuck the diet” every day, regardless of how honorably I begin.  I also say “fuck the cleaning,” “fuck the reading,” and “fuck everything else,” because even seven months later, sometimes it’s still difficult to put one foot in front of the other.

Writing makes me move.  It makes me get other things done first before I can allow myself time to do it.

Today, while I was staring at the blank screen and fishing for a sentence with which to start, my sweet husband managed to convince me that instead, I should really come lay down with him and take a short nap.  I never take naps, but Step-son was gone to a friend’s house, and even the cat looked exhausted.  I had nothing in my head to write, so I decided to take the hand of the man I had to wait half my life to marry.  Sometimes, it seems like I don’t choose him often enough or well enough, even though I try to be grateful for and mindful of every moment I get to spend with him.  I slept draped over his chest like I haven’t since we were dating.

When we got up, I cooked supper and ran a load of dishes.  My husband went to the store for a Coke and ended up with a pack of cigarettes and a pair of lottery tickets.  We hope the lottery tickets win us enough change to send us to the Netherlands for the rest of our lives.  The cigarettes are because they won’t.

Don’t worry, Mom.  We’ll quit again tomorrow.

I still don’t know what to write.

Non-practicing

I have bookshelves overflowing with Heschel, Wiesel, and countless named and unnamed rabbis who wrote before, during, and after the Holocaust.  I have books on trauma theory and on bearing witness to history as well as on scapegoats, missed experiences, and wounds that connect us to one another.  I have siddurim and Torah commentaries and even woo-woo books on Jewish mysticism that describe how to find joy in traditions that have long been thought past their usefulness.  My Tanakh is in Hebrew and English, because once upon a time, I could read both.  There is wisdom in these books, and although I did not write them or in any way inscribe them with my own experiences, they are marked somehow.  Or are they are a marker.  Maybe it’s this:  they bore witness, and I find that difficult to bear.

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When I was 36, I wore a white kippah on my head when I was called to Torah to read (for the very first time) on Yom Kippur.  I was terrified and self-conscious, and I thought I would never be as good or as confident as the rabbi who stood to my right, checking my pronunciation.  Until that moment, I’m fairly certain she thought the same thing.  But I was good.

I was converted to Judaism by a panel of three Renewal rabbis in Denver, Colorado a few months later.  Mainly, I flew out there to see the rabbi ordained; my own conversion was secondary to that, except in the eyes of my beit din.  Despite a year of extensive reading and introspection, despite learning (and then teaching) Hebrew and co-leading weekly services, these people were not at all convinced that I was prepared to convert.  I possessed virtually zero knowledge about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and I had no opinion on the subject.  This was not okay with them and in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been okay with me, either.  I also didn’t have a solid opinion about God.  The latter, it turns out, was much less of a problem than the former; Jews often don’t know what to think about God.  The beit din was reluctant to approve my conversion.  In fact, I’m almost certain they only did so because of the insistence of my rabbi (who was not yet officially ordained).  I think their refusal of her wishes (given her knowledge of me and their lack thereof) would have been unacceptable.

So yes, once I was a practicing Jew.  And I didn’t understand at all why the majority of born Jews weren’t.  I made my Jewishness as official as it could be.  I went joyfully and mindfully into the mikveh the next morning, I said the magic words, and when I came out, I knew I’d never be anything but Jewish ever again.  You should know this:  when I practiced, I was good.  I knew all the songs.  I read all the books.  I gave of my time and talent and money.  I was both teacher and perpetual student.  I wore the Shoah on my sleeve and I railed against present-day injustices that bore too striking a resemblance.  This you should also know:  nowadays, I’m still Jewish because I can’t ever again officially be anything else.  Once a Jew, always a Jew; my name has been writ.  But the closest I’ll ever come to practicing again is lighting the Sabbath candles, drinking wine, and sleeping with my husband.  (Rumor has it, that last thing is a double mitzvah if done on the Sabbath.)

The rabbi had previously been my teacher.  I was an undergrad in a Judaic studies class when I first met her.  I don’t know how she tells the story now, but it used to go “I knew you were one of us the first time I saw you.”  In actuality, I don’t know what she saw, but certainly, she found a sucker in me.  I take some comfort from the fact that I am in good company.  She targets the emotionally vulnerable, the smart, and the talented, and at least at the beginning, we all mistake her for one of us.  But she is predator, not prey, and she just keeps feeding.

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I have bookshelves full of Heschel and Wiesel, and the accounts of the Holocaust that I have both read and heard steal my breath to this day.  I am a Jew, and I became one even though to do so meant enduring the worst time of my life.  I don’t think it’s good for anyone to take history too personally, but during the years I spent studying the Shoah, I could find no other way to take it.  The horror of the event is unfathomable.  The descriptions of even the smallest atrocities become the stuff of nightmares.  It hurts to look and yet you can’t stop looking.  No matter what — for years — I couldn’t exile it from my thoughts.  It became nearly impossible to do my schoolwork, which had long since passed onto new topics.  I had been a writer, but writing with any semblance of my previous joy or humor became inconceivable.  How could there be joy in a world that could allow something like this?

If my rabbi had been anything but a self-interested narcissist, she would have seen where I was and tried to turn me away from it.  (According to her, she had been similarly consumed by her own studies of the subject years before.)  Instead, her only notice of how I was faring came when she realized that I was finding friends in our congregation, both personally and in my capacity as Hebrew school teacher, board member, and lay cantor.  People began to ask when I was singing again, and they sat with me at oneg after services.  We all enjoyed one another, and sitting with me did not mean that everything had to revolve around me.  The same could not be said about sitting with the rabbi, and I have no doubt that my teacher, rabbi, and supposed friend began to experience some jealousy.

I was thrown under the bus for no longer needing her and for making a path to friendship and happiness within a group of people she had considered hers beyond a shadow of a doubt.  A friend of mine (and former best friend of hers) who remained in the congregation after I left called me a year or so ago, days after her own departure:  “I had to go, Angie.  It finally hit me that I just couldn’t take another year.  I couldn’t stand there while she made yet another annual sacrifice.”  My breath caught in my throat, and when I went to tell her that I understood her decision (and so identified with her choice of words), I had to clear my throat to speak.

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I have books on my shelf that I walk by every day.  They are written by wise men and women — great teachers and thinkers and rabbis.  Some of them talk about traumatic events (Freud and Feldman), about missed experiences (Freud, Lacan, Barthes), and about the holes in our very being that connect us to one another (Bataille).  And then…there are also those that stare back quite pointedly from my shelves, and whisper-scream about scapegoats, and about how someone must be made to pay the price if the community is to go on (Rene Girard, and even Shirley Jackson).

Of course, the Jewish population of 20th century Europe was itself scapegoated by the communities in which they made their homes and raised their families.  Other Europeans (particularly Germans) became convinced that they could not survive or be successful while Jews (German Jews) were in their midst; their success and integration could not be permitted to go any further than it already had.  In the end, of course, the Jews were sacrificed by the very communities of which they were a part, by people whose daily lives were almost identical to their own.  The resemblance had become too great.

I studied the Holocaust as well as the events that led up to it.  I read the books that should have taught me all I needed to know about what was happening in my own personal life, and about what had happened to many, many people before me.  And we’re not even going to talk about how my mom was yelling at me from 650 miles away, trying desperately to warn me that A TRAIN WAS COMING.

The train hit, and when it did, my long-awaited adult bat mitzvah was only two days in the rear-view mirror.  (It was a rousing success.)  I was in the middle of a semester of grad school, and I considered my relationship with the rabbi one of the closest in my life.  So I was utterly flabbergasted and totally devastated by the betrayal and abandonment that came.  One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re not.  One minute I’m a teacher at the Hebrew school, a board member, a student in her department, and a friend, and in the next I’m not even worth a conversation, and the remaining members of the board are convening by phone to remove me from the temple so the rabbi never has to see or talk to me again.  (For the next six months, a repeating chain of questions cycled through my head, totally cutting off all other avenues of thought:  Can she really do this to people?  Of course she can — I’ve helped her do it two or three times before myself.  Why didn’t I realize that this wasn’t okay, that other churches and clergy don’t do this?  Why didn’t I recognize that I’d been manipulated into helping her?  Why didn’t the board full of people who knew me realize it?)  In the five years that I had known the rabbi, the pieces of my world that didn’t include her had become very small indeed.  I had changed my area of study, my religion, my friends, even the music that I listened to.  Without realizing it, I had made the differences between us negligible at best, and — as Girard could have told me — one of us had to go.

I went.

Less than two years later, I moved back to Illinois.  A year and a half after that, I was married to my husband and thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t still stuck 650 miles from home, living a life that only looked good from the outside but really was never supposed to be mine.  In retrospect, I’m so glad she showed me who she was.  I got away late, but at least I got away.

When I left, all that remained for me to finish grad school and get my master’s was sitting for my comprehensive exams, and frankly, I was never worried about whether I’d be successful.  I was a writer and a thinker, and I have no doubt that I could’ve done it with one eye closed and one hand behind my back.  But my questions — the ideas I would’ve chosen to be “tested” on — reside entirely between the covers of those books that I once loved and now can hardly bear to look at.  I couldn’t have reread them if my life depended on it.  In the end, my life depended on me leaving them alone, and I haven’t opened them since.

But I do look at them often in the course of standing and admiring my bookshelves (as we book freaks are wont to do).  I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop loving them, and they’ll always be an integral part of who I was and even who I am now.  Occasionally, I manage to forget for a while the pain they caused in me or witnessed from me, and I catch myself quoting their ideas before I even know what I’m doing.  I also frequently recommend them to others, though I am careful to keep certain volumes out of the hands of the younger ones.  I know better than most what these books can do, how sometimes the tales of other people’s destruction can so closely mirror our own as to become indistinguishable.  Our feet follow our thoughts more often than one might think.  And I also believe there’s something of the truth in this eerie description of traumatic resonance from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

Where I was before I came here, that place is real.  It’s never going away.  Even if the whole farm–every tree and grass blade of it dies.  The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there–you who never was there–if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.

I read this and I think simultaneously of my former rabbi and my over-exposure to Holocaust history, testimony, and literature.  And yet…I am Jewish and I always will be.  Though I am usually deceptively silent on the subject(s)– though there are books I will not open for the sake of my own joy and sanity — I am not broken or crazy or even as forgetful as some might like.  I remember who I was, what I did, what I felt, and why.  And nowadays there’s nothing I can do but honor that memory and keep my distance.

[Note:  This blog reflects only my thoughts, feelings and opinions.  None of the statements herein should be construed as objective fact.  Feelings are not facts.]

The disappearing archive

The truth is, I’ve been off the online journal circuit since before it ever got popular.  In fact, I’m going to bet that the last time I wrote consistently was 2008-ish, which was about two years after my crazy ass Vegas girlfriend and I called it quits.  (Though I had to keep slogging along at the journal for a while afterward because APPEARANCES.)  I was pretty burnt out after that–I’d been writing several times a week for about seven years at that point–and I just let the last cute domain name (and there had been several over the years) fade back into the ether from whence it came.  In the intervening nine years, I haven’t kept much of a journal in any form.  I buy expensive and beautiful notebooks and keep them in decorative baskets on my bookshelves, preparing for the unavoidable eventuality (ha!) that one day I’ll be walking by and decide that today, instead of reading, I’ll write.  That happens not nearly as often as I would like.  I have many pretty notebooks with writing in them, but unfortunately, it stops after no more than 20 pages and never picks up again.  I don’t know how it is for other people, but I’m just bizarre enough about my notebook journalling that I cannot allow too much of a passage of time between entries…skipping a year, for example, is totally not cool and absolutely necessitates beginning a new notebook.  Were it not for the fact that I cannot stand to waste paper and that someday there’s probably going to be an apocalypse wherein I’ll need all the paper I can get, I would throw them away in a heartbeat.  As it is, they just sit there and torment me.

The great thing about writing in this forum is that there is no paper to waste (and no money to waste on buying it).  Also, until I decide I need all the bells, whistles, and customization options (which is at most a couple weeks down the road), it’s free.  I admit, writing online again is also a lot like coming home, only it’s more than a little strange to have no history making the journey with me.  Once upon a time, y’all, I didn’t go ANYWHERE without my archives, and quite honestly, I’m still having a hard time with the idea that they aren’t–and won’t ever be–here.  Obviously, I’ll end up retelling some stories, but wow, it’s pretty weird to be out here all alone and unknown in this place where I once felt so seen and so at ease.  (Isn’t it wild to hear anyone talking that way about the internet in this day and age?)  I guess I’ll just have to move along by taking the advice of my high school public speaking teacher and fake it til I make it…someday, dammit, I’ll look (again) as prolific as I feel.