Monthly Archives: June 2010

A Kroger, Somewhere, Ohio, 8:23pm

It’s twenty minutes past bedtime and Samuel needs milk. I rush off to Kroger, overly mindful that it could be my last trip there. I am always looking to commemorate transitional moments. I try not to do anything without finding a greater significance.

I walk out with gallon in hand and a man in the floral section calls me over, confused and slightly pushy, “Hey, you know me don’t you?” He’s clearly cognitively impaired in some way, permanently or not I cannot tell. His eyes are looking in opposite directions and he’s not speaking clearly. He touches my arm.

“No sir, I don’t,” I say nicely, in the teacher voice I’ve clearly come at from both sides, and push his hand gently off me, “but can I help you?”

“Yes, yes, I do. I do need help. I had to move here because gangs were attacking me in Hamilton and Cincinnati. Whole gangs of boys with knives and guns!” he says.

“Oh, that’s really too bad. I’m very sorry about that,” I respond, looking concerned. “What can I do to help?”

“Take this paper, I’ve written on it in sonic purple ink,” he says. “When you open it, you’ll see the secret message you need to help me.”

“Secret message?” I inquire.

“Yes! Read it, please. And you can keep the pen. Write back to me with it on that paper and I’ll see,” he cries, excitedly. “It’s a sonic purple pen, and I’ve tried it. It works. It writes really well!” (He has excellent grammar.)

“Oh, thank you sir, I will,” I tell him earnestly. He rushes away into the parking lot and I trail behind, towards my car, deliberately slow and with caution. It’s still daylight. He begins to tell a group of young men to be careful walking in the middle of the parking lot. They could get hit by a car. It happened to him 17 years ago, in a foreign country. They laugh and karate kick phantoms in the air.

When I get in my car, I open the paper. On it, it says, “Pretty ladies needed,” and then a phone number, over and over again, for four pages, each page topped with a more fervent and serious appeal for the help of “pretty ladies.”

On my way home, I remember an evening in Jerusalem, a summer nine years ago. My roommate and I are headed out of the Old City on a Saturday night, not that far from a police station. A man steps out of the Gates and says, in Hebrew, “Hey you know me don’t you?” I know we don’t know him. He seems possibly inebriated, and is not speaking clearly.

My roommate doesn’t know Hebrew as well as me. She says, “What?” I say, “No.” He steps forward, reaches out. Within an instant, the guy is flat on his back behind me.

Arriving home, my roommate calls out to our other roommate, a soldier home on leave, “Beruriah threw this guy who tried to touch her!”

He responds, “I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t mess with her.”

Such privilege we have here, to have instincts programmed for compassion, not fear.

paved with gravely intentions

As I’ve said often enough, I’m fairly cheerful by default. I’ve had a lingering melancholy tinge since Natan died, but for the most part I’ve integrated his birth and death into my personality. It’s just there. My body messed up; it misunderstood what it was supposed to do. I’m humbled. I’m not angry at the universe anymore, and I’m trying to figure out how to make up for professional time lost that was no one’s fault.

I have very different feelings about the bad things we do to one another. For the past ten months, members of my extended family have been experiencing a different kind of misery, a man-made torment. A world upside-down, deep anger and frustration sparking hell. My sense of goodness and my faith in my ability to understand the world is confused. Things I thought I understood, I don’t. People I thought were good, aren’t. Opinions I thought I could trust, I can’t. It’s different because people are doing it to one another. People who know better, know the truth, and don’t care.

Against that, I rebel. But not in an organized fashion. I do know at least that we can blame the overdone personal ambition of a few men, and probably throw in some incompetent, superficial, sensationalist and self-righteous scribblers. (I’m being deliberately abstract.) And that’s my generous assessment of their characters and talents.

The events find me allied among figures with whom I mostly don’t agree. I’m thinking and asking new questions about the world around me, and how it came to look and move the way it does. It shouldn’t surprise me really, given the source. I’ve long know these people, that place, and that source to get it all wrong, to be opportunist, occlusive and banal. When I first got away, I had a physical response when I was forced to contend with it all again. The closer I got, the more familiar the sounds, sights and smells, the more I could feel a sucking in my chest, my soul departing I would joke, and I could hardly breathe or see. I grew up and out of it, realizing that I could decide, that I could go back and forth, that I could push away the bad and appreciate the good.

That’s just not so anymore, and in fact the mechanisms I developed to help me understand those people and that place, are crashing in on one another. They’re having a bit of a Carnival, taking values, people and principles I hold dear and giving them a skimmington ride. But it’s all based on lies and obfuscation.

And that’s about as specific as I can get right now.

passages

It’s the end of class and all the students are leaving. One remains in his seat, packing very slowly. Finally, with the rest of the students gone, he says, “Professor, when did Christians stop being good people?”

GOOD LORD. I did not say that, never, not even close. And I don’t believe it.

But my student’s been deeply affected by our discussion of abolition and the lyrics of an evangelical singing group from the 19th century, the Hutchinson family. He’s moved by their goodness, their balancing of popularity and morality, and the contrast to something he sees in the present. Young people.

More than two hours later, I finally leave that room, having tried to answer for modern Republican politics, creationism, the weaknesses of Christian rock, how he can make peace with his evangelical relatives, and why politicians can’t be agnostic.

I can’t make history answer for the present. I can’t even make my own past answer for the present. There’s no such real thing as a time line. I don’t like to say anything with certainty, as I’m never really sure of anything. I can think my way out of any interpretation and I argue with myself constantly. With every moment that passes, I think we matter less and I find that incredibly comforting.

Storytelling

A drama teacher told me once that if he closed his eyes while I spoke, he believed me. But if he kept his eyes open, I just looked scared and young. Stage fright. I wasn’t frightened by the audience, but rather by myself. I’m still not over that.

In April, my mom gave Samuel (why bother with “Baby Man” now?) a Golden Book. It was what we call in our house “Monster Cat,” but which you might know better as Alice in Wonderland. One night, Samuel handed me “Monster Cat,” with the back cover forwards.

“Dis story Mama,” he demanded. So I flipped it over, and opened it up. “No, Mama,” he said, turning it back over, “Dis story!” He pointed at the circle of characters on the back. So I told him “that story,” which turned out to be the travels of an elephant in search of a balloon across miles and miles on train and in a boat, running into many friends along the way. He made that same request night after night.

Starting about a month and a half ago, Samuel rejected all his books, kept just wanting to snuggle. We’d turn out the light, get in the chair and he’d want a story. I’d turn on the light, and he’d get frustrated, “No! Snuggle!” After a couple of days Samuel demanded, “Mama! Tell story and snuggle!”

So I began babbling on about a Tom Turtle. Pretty soon, Samuel wanted Tom Turtle every night. Last week he began giving me clearer instructions. “Tom Turtle on a truck!” “Tom Turtle go Mississippi!” I thought it was a ploy, an excuse to avoid bedtime. But last night, after a long weekend and day of planning, I was exhausted. I just wanted to get out of the room, and Tom Turtle wasn’t having a very good adventure. Samuel pinched my lips together, said, “No Mama, do again.” So I started over. Pinched lips again, “No Mama, do again.” Finally, I hit on an acceptable plot line. Big sigh. “Yes, mama, sure, like that,” and he put his hand over my heart and rested his head.

Who told the universe I needed an editor?

An eddy in my brain

I went this weekend to our soon-to-be new college town home. New group of potential friends, new set of anxieties. Who shall I be there? The wife of the new hire in a prestigious position, along for the ride, adjuncting fall term and ostensibly hoping for something better when the chance arises. I am oh-so-very fine with that.

I am actually hoping this year to be free, to release the bindings I’ve felt tightening around me since December 26th 2006. JJ’s new colleagues, my sort-of new colleagues, keep reassuring me that I’m welcome in the new academic community, that coming along for the ride might mean a bit of a ridiculously low paycheck, but that nevertheless everyone’s interested in me, in my work, and in my professional success. Which leads to the eddy in my brain.

I keep first stridently asserting, then timidly trying to explain that I am happy to have this chance. The “voices which [I] hear in solitude” tell me this is an opportunity to become the literary artist, the writer, I have always wanted to be but that claim “grows faint and inaudible as [I] enter into the world.”* Of course I worry about my career. Of course I worry that, after years of graduate school, I could lose my chance to make my work matter. What I worry most about, though, is confessing my hopes to those around me, who barely know me. First, because I could fail to write anything anyone else will read. Second, because if I don’t care and they believe me, they might stop considering me a worthwhile member of the academic community.

Which leads more closely to the eddy in my brain, and this is where it gets strange. The site in my left eye is bad, very fuzzy. Technically, it’s an astigmatism. Emotionally and intellectually, the lack of focus which constantly plagues that eye is a veil. When I look through the veil, my mind wanders. It’s like jumping into a river. My mind wanders and bumps through my thoughts, and the further left I go, the more emotional and personal the thoughts. If I don’t fight it, I can feel my focus, my thoughts, my brain veer to the left, sharply, quickly. When I was in grade school, high school, college, this veering to the left would mean I stopped paying attention to the teacher or professor, or to my friends if they were talking. Only when I read a book could I look straight forward. If I gave into the leftward pull, I’d be writing or imagining a story, or drawing the infinite (and bad, there’s no Van Gogh in my fine motor skills) portraits of the characters and their worlds that used to populate my childhood desk at home. Now, if I want to teach well, or speak with intelligence and creativity to colleagues, I also have to give in to the leftward pull a bit.

In the past 3.5 years, the leftward pull has been populated by so many feelings, largely oscillating between intense joy and pain and grief. I’m sad. Not clinically so, but simply in an undercurrent. If Baby Man is around, the tide of my emotions feels turbulent, but clear and joyful. If I’m around friends and family who know about Natan, it feels a bit muddied, but calm and comforting. If I’m around students, I’m learning to float above. But if I’m talking to friends or colleagues who don’t know about Natan, I’m constantly feeling yanked towards it, yet pushing myself away. It traps me, and I can’t think or speak. Natan’s death feels like a binding on me, and I want to break out of it.

Why? Natan’s death is no longer the most significant event of my life. Baby Man’s life is. But Natan’s death is there, always always trailing me. He’s always in my conversations, but most of the people I now talk to don’t know that. There’s always something missing in the dialog as I narrate my life and my self. Normally, this doesn’t matter. But when I discuss my career and my plans, it does. I’m not sure if that makes sense. But it seems to relate to my identity, my career, as an intellectual. And not just any kind of intellectual, but an intellectual whose project is about the intellectual, emotional and relational lives of historical others.

I write about imaginary relationships between people–between celebrities and their admirers. And I spend a whole lot of my time in what is essentially an imaginary relationship myself. I think this is why the pull of that eddy remains so strong. I still haven’t figured out how to resist it, or when and where to give in to it, and who to bring with me.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance” (1841)