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On the impossibility of holding it all
My dear friend and I have a wonderful birthday tradition. Both avid readers, we buy each other three books, beautifully wrapped and often agonized over. And then — after they’ve been unwrapped, the cards have been read and cooed over, after all the thanking and hugging and laughing and delight — we bring said books back to the bookstore and trade them in for what we really want.
This has happened for so many years running now that it has become an ongoing joke, our inability to pick books for one another, the tininess of our overlapping reading Venn diagrams a feature of our friendship. There is something charming and earnest about us trying again and again, though, rather than just handing over a gift certificate. We want to get it right, to get closer to something; we want to spend time in the bookstore thinking about each other, we want to get each other. We are always up for the challenge, but usually (re)discover that our overlaps dead end at Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had and Meg Howrey’s They’re Going to Love You.
This year she did really well. Convinced that I like “dark memoirs” (I do! It’s true) she chose books by Annie Ernaux, Hua Hsu and Patricia Lockwood. They were spot on, squarely in the category of books I usually zip through. I saw my grad school self beaming, pencil at the ready.
And yet, they were not what I needed right now. I am almost 200 pages into Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads and have been joking that I’ll be reading it for the next six months, and am in fact very happy to be swept away every evening by a story entirely unrelated to everything happening in the world and entirely unfamiliar to me. I’ve longed for a novel so all-encompassing I forget myself, I forget, for a moment, anything beyond its pages. I don’t want to read about real people. I want made-up people made so real I long for them.
Last night, after lying in bed for an hour watching clips of an Israeli soldier giving a CNN journalist a tour of the basement of a hospital in Gaza where the IDF suspects hostages had been held and Hamas has set up camp (!!) — and then seeing premature Palestinian babies unhooked from incubators, so skinny and huddled together, struggling for life — I told my husband I could no longer do this before bed if there was any hope of sleeping. I got in the bath, as I do every night, with Crossroads, and let myself be swept away, grateful that that was even possible, to be in the warmth of a bathtub where no one was going to break in to slit my throat, where no one was going to launch a bomb that was going to destroy our block, killing my daughter, my husband, all of our beloved neighbors.
Back at the bookstore, I traded in the memoirs for a baking book I’d been eyeing for a year. I’ve accumulated three such books in the last few weeks, and they supply me with simple, immediate, necessary joy. They are the opposite of everything else right now: the noise and vitriol online and on college campuses, the incomprehensible horrors across the world, the friends so many of us are losing in the face of differing views, the sheer agony of watching so many innocent Palestinian people suffer and die, and also the grief of feeling that so much of the world is (our grandparents were right) so unabashedly anti-semitic.
I come back again and again to leaders who are willing to articulate, to admit, that there is suffering everywhere. Why is that so hard to say, so hard for so many to actually feel in their bones?
This birthday tradition delights me, and especially right now. This friend and I do not agree on books, which I think puzzles us both since we love what we read, we love reading, period. But we treat each other’s reading habits like a riddle — maybe, with enough focus, I can figure this out. I love going to the bookstore and looking at all the spines through her eyes. At some point we’ve joked that our rationale goes something like, If I know I won’t read it, I buy it for you! There’s a respect there, an admiration, a willingness to agree to disagree, but a longing to get closer to understanding.
I — obviously — cannot liken this to the situation in the Middle East, nor would I ever dare such hubris, such tomfoolery. But perhaps what is most disheartening, as an American Jew, living on this side of the world, dealing mostly with people’s very strong and often half-baked views online, is how sure everyone is, how sure everyone seems to be that they are unequivocally right, that this is all so simple. The most true sign I’ve seen, posted from a rally by the CEO of our shul, simply said: I am holding the pain of both peoples.
Yes, it is easy to say from here, all the way in LA, far from bombs and crumbling buildings and orphaned children and families living in the most excruciating agony waiting for news of captured babies, children, parents, cousins, nieces, nephews and grandparents, some of whom already survived the Holocaust. But I think it is harder to say, I am holding the pain of both peoples than the alternative, which is to disregard how complex and traumatic this all is, for so many people (yes, your friends, too), from the safety of a computer screen.
In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a lot of texts and DMs from other Jewish women essentially asking, Are you okay? and then declaring that they are not; that it feels impossible to hold all the compounding horrors at once, for Jews and Palestinians alike. I would assume that Muslim and Palestinian women outside the Middle East have the same secret, horrified, grief-stricken threads going, too. I hope, they, too, are giving each other so much love.
Over the weekend I made three kinds of cookies, two from Sam’s book, one from Yossy Arefi’s. They were insane. I gave them away as yet more birthday gifts, I walked them over to a friend’s house and stayed for a glass of wine, I dropped them at our neighbor’s door and walked away before he yelled, “thank you!” I ate a lot of them, hungry for pleasure, for comfort.
There are so few places to find simplicity these days, but this one is guaranteed: cream butter and sugar. Add eggs. Share with friends. That I can do. I will not mistake one form of simplicity for another. I will keep reading. I will keeping baking. I will turn on the oven and wait.
Unrelated to any of this (!) I was hugely (hugely!) honored to be part of Danielle Lazarin’s new Substack project, In Process, where she lets a writer run wild talking about how we do what we do. I adore how Danielle writes about revision (and all things writing), and was absolutely thrilled to share the drama and joy of this life with her. You can read it here!
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