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Scattered thoughts for dark times
Many late afternoons end like this one: with me, on the floor of my kitchen, staring into the abyss of the oven. Usually I’m listening to a podcast, or flipping through a cookbook (often unrelated to what I’m waiting for in the oven). Sometimes I’m scrolling, but usually I’m just resting after what, too often, becomes many hours of standing in the kitchen, when banana bread-making turns into dinner-making turns into cleaning up, and suddenly I’ve been on my feet and in my apron for two hours. I’m covered in dough or flour, my hair is a mess, my eye makeup is smeared. I’m too tired to reach for an actual chair. It’s such a good hiding place.
I’ve written nothing these last few weeks; no one needs to hear my underdeveloped (though no less emotional) views on the situation in Israel and Gaza. No one — save, of course, my friends and family — needs to know how I’ve been feeling, which is not so dissimilar to how many left-wing Jews have been feeling, but of course not all left-wing Jews because we aren’t a monolith; this has become clearer and clearer as these terrible weeks have gone on.
After a week of watching this all play out on social media, after one too many posts by people I deeply admired who had never uttered a word about Israel or Palestine until two weeks ago (including me), I took Instagram off my phone. It’s a lot quieter now, without all the shouting, all the finger pointing in the ether, meaningless, often hurtful and useless and virtue-signalling, all the attempts at trying to be heard, at trying to convince and be believed, at trying to be right.
Instead, I check in with friends I know are hurting. I listen to my rabbi (who had, weeks earlier on Yom Kippur, spoken out forcefully against this terrible Israeli government), and to conversations she’s had with imams. Occasionally I see things from writer-moms that resonate. I’m asking friends who’ve been steeped in these issues for years for advice on what I should be reading, who I should be listening to. I ask: Is Thomas Friedman a right-wing nut or is he right on this one thing? I text friends in Israel, in London, in Vienna, in Toronto: How are you? And they describe not speaking Hebrew out in public in Europe, being afraid to attend events about Israel in Canada, swastikas appearing in their beloved cities (I used to go to a park in Vienna that had one on the playground equipment). A friend and I had coffee the other day and when Israel came up, we found ourselves almost whispering across the table at each other.
This week, my USC students and I spent three hours on Jo Ann Beard’s seminal essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” one of the most magnificent works of nonfiction you can get your hands on. One thing this essay does so brilliantly (I say this without “giving it away,” but do read it to experience it yourself) is flat-out refuse to be reduced to one narrative, to its most violent, obvious one.
On a first read, we think this is an essay about a woman whose dog is dying, whose husband has left her, whose job is barely keeping her afloat, and whose house has been taken over by a gang of squirrels. But then something much more violent and horrifying happens — something utterly unimaginable. (Read the essay again and you see it all seeded there, though, it’s all, every single thread, in the first four paragraphs.) And yet, even when this “bigger” storyline enters the room, the rest of her life doesn’t disappear; these threads don’t get cut short: the dog, the ex-husband, the job, the squirrels. These smaller, everyday losses weave themselves through to its final pages, even as the life she once knew — even as the self she once knew — ends by forces far beyond her control.
In class we talked at length about how Beard (like, really, how???) manages to create a frame big enough to contain all these things at once, about how she forces us, as readers, to sit in these various levels of grief and trauma, to have a full, complex experience of them. One form doesn’t take priority over the others: she asks us to be, somehow, with all of them, to experience them in our hearts and minds and bodies, a kind of terrible harmony. In the end, they echo together, the sound is magnified: the all-too human experience of love and loss, of suffering. Of going on living when others don’t get to.
I want to say here that my kid and I went to see the Taylor Swift movie. I can feel this as a non-sequitur, but there was a moment sitting in that theatre, holding her hand through the whole first hour before we (literally) leapt up to dance like maniacs in the aisle, that I finally, after all these weeks, started to sob.
Swift was singing, Can I go where you go? Can we always be this close? Forever and ever and while I know this is a song about a lover, for that moment — in “a pocket of silence,” as Beard writes — sitting in the dark, with my 10-year-old girl clutching my hand, I felt like it was about motherhood, or about love, just love. I thought about my own crushing love for my daughter. About every single mother on earth’s crushing love for their own children. About their deepest, darkest fears of losing them. About the ends we will go to to try to keep them safe. How terribly, horribly difficult this is, for some so much more so than for others, and the unfairness of this. How we all long to find places of safety and how sometimes this is, for so many reasons, impossible. How so many people have fled, and fled again.
But for a moment, in these dark days, in that dark theatre, in the middle of a weekend afternoon, I just watched my kid stare up at that glittering, powerful woman with her cat eyes sharp enough to kill a man and her bright red lips. My daughter’s own heart-contoured eyes were bright bright bright with awe and happiness. I held her small hand like she might, if I just stayed still and silent inside the song, actually hold onto it forever and ever.
[Because I’ve been so inconsistent about posting, I’ve paused billing! x]
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