We stood in a circle in the A-Frame cabin yesterday morning sharing closing reflections. Camp Erin breaks our hearts open so that we may never close them again to the love that surrounds us. As each teen shared what they would leave behind and what they would bring home with them, I felt the presence of every single teen and counselor who has stood in that circle in that cabin with me. Four years of stories, memories, laughter, and loss. Four years of growth witnessed over the 48 hours we spend together.
It’s a weekend camp, and with the exception of the few who come to my monthly grief group, I don’t see these children again afterward. But I think about them often, and I remember the gifts they’ve given me. I remember the details they share about the people they are grieving. I remember the breakthrough moments, when they realize that they are not the only one to feel guilt or anger or relief. I remember their laughter around the campfire, and their awkward flirting with the kids in the other teen cabin. My heart remembers how their heartbeats feel when they are wrapped in my arms.
Each of them stood there with me in that circle yesterday – a circle that was bigger than the cabin, bigger than the camp, bigger than four weekends over four years of love. When we stand there together, I tell them that it feels longer than a weekend because every time we spend one hour in deep relationship with someone else, it’s actually two hours – the hour you experience, and the hour the other person experiences. Time expands to make space for the relationship that grows between two people. So when you think about all of the meaningful, compassionate, deep relationships that form over that one weekend, it makes sense that 48 hours feels more like a year. Four years feels like forever. Forever feels like a memory that lives in your bones.
There’s so much love in the world, and so much loss. There’s so much beauty, truth, pain, and wonder. I’m so grateful for the spaces in my life where I get to feel it all, where I get to stand in community with others who feel it too, where my soul awakens every moment to the magic that surrounds us. At times I’m overwhelmed with uncertainty, fear, and worry about the future. Will I ever be “settled?” Will I ever find stability? Sometimes I don’t even know if stability exists. But I do know that community does. And I know that if I infuse each of my communities with love, the magic will never leave me.
Thank you to everyone who has been in the circle with me – at camps, at Hillel, and at Isabella Freedman. In coffee shops, yarn shops, and cabins, on sandy beaches and in the redwoods. Forever wouldn’t be the same without you, and I am, forever, grateful.
I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I know I’m supposed to live into my uncertainty, trusting that God will meet me there. Others seem to be able to do this – they experience time as a straight line, a narrative as cool and clean as an autumn breeze. My bones have always known that time is a circle, or a spiral. We are not the wind, we are the leaves as they spin, in an endless pursuit of beginnings chasing endings.
I am Lot’s Wife. You don’t know my name because they never asked my husband. People wonder now, reading my story. Back then, they didn’t think it mattered. And even now, I’m not sure it does. I’m one line in your Bible story – “And his wife looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” One look back. That was all it took.
You know what happened. Avraham argued with God, saying that God should spare us all if there were even 10 good people in Sodom and Gomorrah. We were judged to be the righteous few, and they told us to flee. So we did.
As it says, “God rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, and God turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.”
We were running forward but I had to look back. It was my last chance. What else could I have done? It wasn’t perfect, but it was home, and it was burning. I wasn’t perfect, but I’m only human – or was, until I became salt. Ramban wrote that I was looking to see if my daughters were following. He’s not wrong. But that’s not the whole truth either. I wanted to make sure they were with us – but I also had to say goodbye.
No one ever gets to say goodbye in the beginning. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden. Noah and his family got on the boat as the world they knew was swallowed by water. God told Avraham to leave his father’s house and his native land, to go, God says, “to a land that I will show you, to a place you do not know.” The stories of our people are marked by loss. All of them left something or someone. And yet, no one ever asks if Adam and Eve were homesick, if Avraham yearned for his father, or for the culture and religion he left behind. Did Noah dream of the people who drowned? Maybe he did…maybe not. But he trusted God. I’ve never understood it. The past is so knowable and the future, intangible. How does anyone learn to trust?
I knew I shouldn’t have done it. But time is a circle, and the leaves on the wind are torn from their limbs before they’re ready to die. This is why I needed one last glimpse of what we left behind, even as we ran forward, away from our lives, our homes, and our stories. I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to everything I knew. Noah’s world was lost to the salty sea, but I’m the one who is made of salt now, dissolving at the mere touch of water.
The first time I saw you, you were nothing but light.
We were in the ER because we were worried about you. I’d had an allergic reaction and even though I was mostly fine, everything mattered more with you inside of me.
The doctor told me that we may not be able to see you, because you were only seven weeks old at the time. But we watched the screen, breathless, until the doctor said “Your baby is safe. That flickering light? It’s your baby’s heartbeat.”
Heartbeat. My body created a heartbeat and now it had two hearts.
A voice rose inside me like smoke from a flame: “All this time, you were capable of creating this miracle? I’m so sorry.” My eyes burned. So many years of pushing my body to the breaking point. So many years begging my body to be thinner, stronger, better. I had no idea what it meant to create life with my body, to create a heartbeat that depended on my own. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my own voice repeated within me. I didn’t know you could make miracles or heartbeats that flicker. I love you. You’re perfect. Thank you. Gratitude, at last, for this body, this baby, the miraculous light inside.
Four weeks later, the spotting started. At first, I was confused. Spotting? What? Googling. Could be normal. 11 weeks pregnant, almost 12. It happens to some people. Really, it could be nothing. But it could be everything. Blood test #1. Waited all weekend. More spotting. Probably nothing. No need to jump to conclusions. No need to ask what if. No one needs to know.
Finally it was Monday. Blood test #2. When will the results come in? This afternoon. I refreshed the browser. Again again again. Could be nothing. Cramping, bleeding, but maybe it’s nothing. They say this happens sometimes. Results came late at night. HCG levels dropped in half. In half. Didn’t the doctor say a drop meant something is wrong? My heart sank. Something must be wrong. This isn’t nothing. I am not ok. What do we do? Should we go to the ER? We called the advice line. “Could be normal,” she said. “It’s almost second trimester, after all. HCG levels drop at the second trimester. Only way to know for sure is an ultrasound.” Why didn’t they have me get an ultrasound to begin with? Ultrasound was scheduled for Thursday. I called the next day and moved it to Tuesday, their first available appointment. At least if there’s something wrong, I’ll be able to go to camp and my brother’s wedding in September. At least we know we can get pregnant. At least.
On Tuesday, I wanted to see your flicker on the screen again, to know you were safe. It was the moment I’d envisioned so many times: the ultrasound picture. Holding hands and waiting to see. Except it was different now, the anticipation mixing with dread. I saw you, and you were nothing but light. A crescent moon against the dark sky of my womb. So small, and this time there was no flicker.
I read the radiologist’s face. He was trying to figure out how to tell us. I know what it’s like to tell someone that someone they love has died, so I helped him out.
“I started bleeding on Friday. My HCG levels dropped. We know something might be wrong.”
He let out a breath. “Yeah…I’m not really getting a heartbeat…” Beat. Heart. Beat. I’m not really getting a. At least we know. No more uncertainty.
“Its size is about nine weeks, and you said you’re at twelve,” he said.
“Is that when it died? Nine weeks?” I’m not really getting a heartbeat.
We were still holding hands. We found the tissues. The radiologist stepped out to give us some space. I called my mom. When the doctor came in, I asked what will happen next, since this dead thing was still inside of me. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “Most conceive again and have a healthy child.”
My OB called me later that night. The next available appointment for a D&C was the following Tuesday. My womb would be your coffin for a week, unless my body chose to release you on its own. My OB tried to be helpful. “At least we know you can get pregnant. This happens to a lot of people. One in four.” ONE IN FOUR?! I was shocked. Why doesn’t anyone talk about it? I’m not really getting a heartbeat. I’m not really.
Sunday night I was in the worst pain of my life. It woke me up at 1am. I’d been sleeping a lot. My body was confused and sore. I doubled over, it hurt so much. Within hours, you were outside of me, over a week after you started to leave me. My body was different. Lighter, because it was empty. I was no longer carrying something dead inside of me. At the ultrasound appointment on Tuesday, they gave me medication to clear out anything that was left. At least I didn’t need the D&C. At least.
“You will probably feel the hormonal change,” they told me. “And some grief.” They offered resources. They were so kind. I thought about the medical students I know, as the residents answered my questions. I know a lot about grief. And I know a lot about hormonal depression. I don’t know anything about this empty space. I know that I want it to be over.
My body wasn’t ready to release you completely. For a full two months after that, I bled pieces of you. I bled the emptiness you left behind. I bled the lining from my womb that became a coffin. You took so much of me with you when you died.
I went to work the next day. I kept up with my rabbinical studies. I was fine, I said. I even believed it. We grieved on the first day, and I grieved with dear friends who came to visit, and then I told myself I was done. I gave a presentation in my history class the weekend after we found out. Studying Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was an unbelievable blessing, getting to know a rebbe who taught that suffering can be transformed into meaning, and that meaning can become joy.
And then your almost-birthday was approaching. Your projected due date fell on Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world, the Jewish New Year. It’s also when we read the story of Hannah for the haftarah portion – Hannah, who was barren, and cried and prayed for a child until God gave her one. Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, I was at grief camp, supporting a cabin of teen girls who transformed in 48 hours, from closed to open, their light shining through as their stories unfolded. They were writing letters to the people in their lives who had died, and I was seized with an urge to write to you. The harder I tried to ignore this desire, the more I wanted to do it. The words tumbled out in 25 minutes, covering two and a half pages. I don’t remember writing any of it – all I know is that I had to write, so I did.
So hineini, here I am, on Rosh Hashana, revisiting what I wrote, in a coffee shop of course, remembering, and sad, but grateful too. I’m not sure how to miss you because I never met you. But some part of me knew you, and all of me learned from you, because your heartbeat lived with mine. You were only with me for twelve weeks, and yet you alone could teach me the miracle of my own body, the wonder and awe, the mystery of my own power to create the light and the life I saw, flickering on that screen the first time I met you.
If you taught me something this enormous after only twelve weeks, I can’t imagine what I might have learned if you had lived. I can’t wait to find out what I will learn from the next life that grows inside me.
The first time I met you, you were nothing but light. You were amazing, extraordinary. I already loved you. And now that you’re gone, I can’t ever thank you for using the twelve weeks of your own life to teach me something about mine.
I’ll never forget that, my flicker, my heartbeat. And even when (or if) I’m fortunate enough to have children, I will never forget you.
Happy New Year to the life that’s no longer inside me. And to all of the life that’s yet to come.
Written in 2007, this piece returns to me every year with graduation. Re-reading it has become another part of the ritual. Enjoy!
I didn’t realize graduation was coming until I discovered I would miss the last Hillel Shabbat celebration of the school year. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the day of rest that starts at sundown every Friday, and ends Saturday night. I count the passing weeks and years with the coming and going of this holiday. The best part is that even when it ends, I look forward to it, since it arrives every week. These rituals are part of my mental calendar, like graduation, the first day of school, the steady cycles of winter, spring, and summer break. The last Shabbat of the school year is one of my favorite celebrations. We look back at the week, and the year behind us, we bid farewell to our graduates, and we welcome the new staff of Hillel interns. We do not meet again until fall. My very last “Final Shabbat” will be next year, after I finish my masters program. Still, I was upset when I found out the conference I’m attending in Virginia coincides with this year’s celebration.
I’m trying to cobble together a story based on the graduations and goodbyes I’ve known, the see-you-tomorrow goodbyes, and the forever goodbyes. I never want anything to end, but eventually, everything does. If I’ve learned anything in college, it’s that no school year is like the one before it. Our lives are marked by change, the comings and goings of seasons and friends. Ever since my friend died, not long after he graduated in 2005, goodbyes have felt like little deaths. At graduation, he promised he’d visit in the fall. Goodbyes can be betrayals, when sudden absence replaces a promised return.
At Shabbat services, we need a minyan – a group of at least 10 people – to ritually call each other to prayer. We can call ourselves to prayer without 10 people, but we need a congregation to call to each other. This emphasis on the congregation means every Friday night feels different, yet the same: we sing the same songs, but they differ, depending on who is singing. After five years of greetings and goodbyes, Hillel holidays, and weekly services, the room is heavy with missing voices. I might be surrounded by people I love, but a silence accompanies every song. Memories wander inside, sometimes unsolicited, when we open the door to welcome Shabbat.
For a long time, I was obsessed with photographing doorways and windows. It started when I had only a few weeks left at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where I worked as a tour guide and historical re-enactor during summer 2005. I took pictures of the view though the door at Washington’s Headquarters, and through the window of the fee booth. There was nothing particularly beautiful outside. I’d just grown accustomed to it, and somewhere along the line I decided that this is what “home” is all about – it’s the part of you that opens into morning light, the door that closes when it’s time to say goodbye.
We are always leaving, arriving, and leaving again. Shabbat comes every week, and each school year has its end. But somehow, when it’s The Last Time, the most mundane activities become sacred: “The Last Midnight Safeway Shopping Spree,” “The Last Dumpster Dive,” “The Last Bluebook Exam.” We cannot look forward without looking back. The Last leans on the time before the last, the final hinges on the first. We create histories, even where none exist.
By mid-June, I will have witnessed five years of college commencements, and this would have been my fifth “Final Shabbat.” Still, no matter how I’ve tried to knit my farewells, to force my Valley Forge and graduation goodbyes to speak to each other, it never quite works. My loved ones leaving this year will take their place alongside my other memories. The memories will find me at Hillel, or at a favorite coffee shop. They will tap me on the shoulder when I least expect it, but these goodbyes, like the previous ones, defy the notion that it will all be ok. Some people have been whirlwind friends – in and out of my life before I knew what changed me. Others will be in my life, in some way, for a long time.
I accept the stories people tell each other – that all endings are beginnings, that it’s better to “live in the moment” than to live looking backward. But the real impossibility of goodbye is that although the door has closed, there is no immediate emotional closure. I still feel pangs of absence in the presence of memory. When the silences announce themselves, it’s difficult to accept that the “beauty of the moment” cancels the sudden loss. Yet, I can’t deny that I’m grateful for voices that enriched my life when I heard them, week after week. Saying goodbye, then, is another ritual. Instead of coming every Friday night, school ends every year, and everything changes. Despite the discomfort, the end reminds me that I’m still living through it, and that another beginning will come.
I wrote this seven years ago, but I’m sharing it on my blog today to honor the memory of my wonderful grandmother, Adrienne, who died this morning at the age of eighty-four. May her memory be for blessing.
It was my grandfather’s 77th birthday, and we were out to dinner at one of those restaurants where I’m always paranoid I’ll spill something. The forks were chilled. The lights were dim, and a candle in a glass dish flickered warmly on the table. We wore our most uncomfortable clothing, mostly because it makes our grandmother happy. “Don’t you look nice,” she crowed when we walked in. “It gives me so much pleasure, would it kill you to dress up like this more often?” Everyone wished my grandfather a happy birthday, and no one pointed out that this was his first birthday without his own father, who had died at the age of 105 in February.
The conversation was relatively normal, especially for my family. My brothers and I talked about school and work, and my mom talked about her students. We didn’t even argue about politics! After the server brought appetizers, my grandfather smiled, and brought up the new real estate they had purchased in Simi Valley that day. I didn’t know he was interested in buying a place, but, he liltingly explained, it was inexpensive, on the side of a grassy hill, with a great view of the mountains. They told their bridge friends all about it, so their friends could get in while the bargains were still hot. When my grandmother described the matching headstones and coffins they’d chosen, I realized the “real estate” was a plot at a Jewish cemetery.
At this point, all other conversation died. Bits of food fell out of my brother’s mouth. I tried not to spit out my coffee. But no one could say anything before my grandmother continued.
“There’s plenty of space in the plot if any of you want to join us, when the time comes, but of course you don’t have to,” she chuckled. “We just wanted you to have the option. And there’s a pretty little bench under a tree nearby if you want to visit – not that you’d want to, because we’d be dead, but just in case.” My grandfather told us several of their bridge friends had, indeed, followed suit, purchasing their own real estate in the same cemetery. I didn’t know if I should laugh or not, as I saw coffins circling their ancient card table, in an endless game of imaginary bridge. As my grandparents giggled about their fantastic bargains at the cemetery, I decided my sense of humor is genetic.
Entrees arrived, and our laughter faded. My grandfather explained that choosing the coffins and headstone for his parents had been a miserable experience. Despite their health, they bought the real estate out of consideration for us. “You shouldn’t make those decisions if you don’t have to,” my grandmother said. “We have a place all picked out already, no need to worry.” They took care of themselves their entire lives, and they’re used to taking care of us. Why should they approach death any differently?
My uncle, Steve, always ready to lighten the mood, announced that he wants to be cremated. We should take an urn with his ashes, and the ashes of each of his beloved cocker spaniels to Disneyland. My brothers and I promised to toss all of the ashes in the air, coming down the big hill at Splash Mountain. “Bring the photo to family gatherings. Max, Duncan, and I will always be there in spirit!”
Coincidentally, Joseph and I recently found a place to live for the fall. My grandparents found a more permanent residence. While Joseph and I will start our lives together in our new home, my grandparents’ real estate is the last home they will ever share. Despite these differences, we’re both preparing to transition. There’s no way of knowing what comes next, in life, or in death, and in the face of immense, unpredictable change, we seek stability, however illusory, in our respective real estate.
Why do we want places to represent stability or permanence? A headstone is just a rock. My grandmother was right – why visit? They won’t be there! But the headstone is not for her. Physical markers like headstones and houses are for the living. Both are coat racks for our recollections. We only access the past in cemeteries, but a home can also house future memories. “Real Estate” is more permanent than an anniversary, a memory, or even a photograph, but it also reminds us of the inherent impermanence and instability of life.
The strange collision between past and present makes me laugh, and feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s the grassy courtyard we’ll share with other apartment tenants, or the side of a grassy hill with a bench nearby, these are spaces where we can gather and remember. The house and headstone are also places where I can process that collision, where beginning and end are inseparable. Life necessitates death, moving in necessitates moving out. The sadness of death affirms that life was beautiful. Even though our family dinner conversation was macabre, we couldn’t help but have a wonderful time talking about death. Whether it’s a home, a meal, a memory, or a gravestone, sharing them is what’s important. Regardless of the space itself, it helps to have someone to move in with.
I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?
I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway?
It’s cold, the first real rain California has seen in a long time. Stanford’s campus is relatively quiet. There are only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people are mostly inside, studying for finals, buying their plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at Florida State University, the students are wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.
I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? I talked about it with my rabbi at a beach Shabbat retreat that weekend. The Torah reading for that week discussed the rituals that Jews perform after seeing or touching a dead body. Jews must complete these rituals before they return to their community for prayer. The ancient ones knew. A brush with mortality can shatter us. We need rituals to remember how to be whole again.
School shootings always raise questions. Is it because of guns? Is it because mental illness is stigmatized? Is it both? Maybe school shootings affect me so strongly because I can relate to students, and I’ve made a living out of it. I’ve worked on a university campus for the past seven years, and I was a university student for the six years before that. Students are the reason I get out of bed every day. Their lives are my calling, and their stories are a gift.
Over the past seven years, I have gained their trust. I have heard about their fears and their successes. I cheer them on in their campus musical and theater performances. I support them when they’re stressed about their exams. I coach them through interpersonal challenges. I give them feedback on their application essays and I write their letters of recommendation. I hold them when they cry because a friend has committed suicide or a grandparent has finally succumbed to terminal illness.
This week alone, I have had three conversations about grief, and one about depression. I listened, I validated, and I offered advice when they asked for it. This week I am including a memorial ritual for Transgender Day of Remembrance in my Shabbat service. We will think about this year’s 226 victims of transgender discrimination. We will think about Ferguson, and about the four men who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue two days ago, and we will think about the victims of school shootings, and the victims of genocide, about the Kesem campers who lost their parents this week, and about the Stanford alumnus who was found dead in the Bay. We will remember the ones who have no one left to remember them. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no one should have to grieve alone.
When I read about a school shooting, my first impulse is to reach out. I desperately want to support the students who survived, I want to make sure they have someone to talk to, to process the trauma, to remind them that love exists in a world doesn’t appear to be loving. I imagine what would I say if it was one of my own students in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. I wonder what I would say to the family. I visited a student in the hospital this past Sunday. It was an infection, and he’s mostly all right now. Healing takes time.
When the children and teachers were murdered in Newtown, it was in the week leading up to Chanukah, our Festival of Light. I remember going from one synagogue to another, looking for a place to say the mourner’s prayer. All three synagogues were hosting celebrations for the first night of Chanukah. The laughing and singing children and families felt like a punch in the gut. Wait, I wanted to cry out. How can you sing when so many are suffering? Then I remembered that it wasn’t right for me to think that way. People are suffering everywhere, and always. That doesn’t mean we should decrease our joy. It means we should increase our awareness, we should choose to bring light into the lives of others.
There was another school shooting today, and the rain is still falling. There is work to be done, and there are stories that need to be heard. We cannot suffocate under the weight of these losses when there are days and months marching ahead of us.
We need to remember, and we need to step forward, bravely, one smile at a time. We need to be the miracle, the moment of hope, the brightness bleeding through cracks in the darkness. We need to love in the face of loss, whether or not it touched us personally. We need to laugh sometimes, and cry, and hold onto each other. Because when it comes down to it, we are all we’ve got.
Another piece of older writing, but one that returns to me every fall, with the leaves, new students and the new year. New writing will be here soon, I promise!
The reason it’s so hard to tell this story is because it’s a story I don’t want to tell. I want to talk about everything around it until the space where this story lives is a tiny white dot, surrounded by circling black sentences. Every time I add another layer of writing, the white dot grows more visceral, and its silence, louder. I’ve written about goodbyes, graduations, new homes, and final resting places. I’ve called them “rituals,” hoping to lessen the finality of endings. Rituals are predictable; life itself is not so patterned.
It was September, and everything was beginning. September brings autumn breezes and new books. Old friends reunite with excited cries, while new students grow younger every year. When I was a child, I rose at five in the morning, even though my first day of second grade would not begin until eight. I couldn’t wait to see what second grade would bring, and this was the start of it all. In college, September still brought the familiar rush of excitement and nerves, and a fresh sense of purpose…which always faded by midterms. Longing for September’s optimism soon became part of the ritual as well.
In September 2005, I had just returned from a National Historical Park on the East Coast, where I worked as a historical re-enactor for three months. I barely had time to recover from my colonial adventure before my senior year of college began. That September, I began writing my history undergraduate senior thesis, after eighteen months of research. I wrote my first few blurbs as a new intern for the Santa Cruz Good Times, a local weekly newspaper, and I discovered that I loved writing literature features. I studied for the GRE’s, enrolled in my last two literature courses, and I began applying to history graduate programs. Everything felt enormous as I prepared to finish college, and took my first steps toward the unimaginable territory of graduate school.
Then, on September 20, my friend Randy died. He was 25 years old, and he had graduated in June with a degree in politics. I remember his bright orange “party shirt,” and sharing cold drinks on his porch. I remember that everyone sat up straighter when he started coming to Kresge Student Parliament meetings. By his senior year, Randy was the Parliament chair, and I was the secretary. I gave him Robert’s Rules of Order for his birthday. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. Randy had worked on Ryan Coonerty’s mayoral campaign for the city of Santa Cruz. He was going to go far.
When I found out that he had died, there was a scream that started in my stomach.
The only poem I wrote that school year was about his funeral. I wrote it without meaning to, sitting at my desk in the Good Times office in September, waiting to hear back from a possible interviewee. I called the poem “Twenty-five,” and when I went outside to get some coffee, I read it to my mom over the phone. Meanwhile, leaves scattered on Pacific Avenue, and students huddled together in coffee shops. Somehow, it was still September.
The day after his funeral, I tried to read Clouds by Aristophanes. It was inconceivable. I asked for my first extension on a paper in my fourth year of college, because I was so overwhelmed with grad school applications, the GRE’s, my burgeoning thesis project, and Randy’s absence, which made everything else seem trivial. How could the leaves fall?
On September 20, 2006, I was a busy new graduate student. I spent the entire day reading, and trying not to think about anything. But in the middle of the night, I blew a tire right in front of his old house, and I heard him say “Sweet pea, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to blow a tire too.” I stumbled out of the car and cried “I know, I have to slow down, I’m sorry! I love you! I miss you!” It was the one-year anniversary of his death. I hadn’t forgotten. I was just tired of remembering.
Each September, I start another year working at a university Hillel. Autumn arrives with its familiar markers – leaves and books, new students to meet, High Holy Day services to plan. My sense of memory is stronger than my sense of present – the past is vibrant, finished, and contained, while the moment is gray and intangible. Rituals provide an imagined structure, the illusion that I can order the present because I can count on new students. I can rely on September.
In 2005, Randy’s death disrupted autumn. Familiar rituals seemed insignificant, cruel in the face of shattering change. But over the last few years, I’ve learned that life is not ritual, and that rituals change based on life. I never wanted September to mark an ending, but I didn’t get to make that choice. I can, however, choose the way I want to remember, now that Randy is part of the autumn landscape. Like books, like leaves. Like new beginnings.
This is an “oldie-but-goodie.” I wrote this in fall 2005. I have performed it on stage and on live radio and I find that its message keeps coming back to me because I work with young women and I am always considering the way we talk about our bodies. Enjoy!
My body looks like Russia. It is immense. It spans a hearty portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. There is very little room for neighboring start-up republics on its borders, and when I was younger, I feared I was doomed to live like a frozen wasteland forever. Everything about me kept getting bigger. In fourth grade, my breasts resembled onion domes. By sixth grade, they were the size of St. Petersburg. These days, I think my breasts may be out to take over the world. You could hide nuclear missiles in there! I don’t recommend it though. You may not be able to find them again.
On the map of my body, stretch marks climb over my hips like rivers trying to reach both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The space between my legs, though not as barren as I feared it would be, seems to get lost between the snow-crested mountains of my thighs.
I inherited this Russian body from my foremothers. They handed it down with their recipes for matzo-ball soup and knish. I can still see my weight-conscious family members frowning around the table, examining my expanding waistline as they examined their own, while my great-grandmother, who sat on the other side of the table, encouraged me to take another helping. What, you should want to deny your heritage? This recipe was my grandmother’s! Eat! Enjoy! We are a zaftig (full-figured) people, that’s how we survived hard winters in Russia, and now, ha! We use food as a way to survive everything! We kvetch (complain) about how big we are, and then we eat more because we’re upset. Nu (so), it’s in our blood. What can we do about it but thank God that we have hearty appetites and big hearts to match.
I tried to listen to my great-grandmother’s words, but it’s awkward to be the largest country. I don’t mean to take up most of the space in Europe, but at least I’m nice about it. I only occupy the spaces no one else wants, the cold, lonely places where the nights are white and the darkness envelops the day. I’m clumsy about government too. My immensity gets in the way, and I seem to trip over everything.
You’d think I would do something about this. I’ve tried. I stopped eating for awhile, in hopes that I could slim down to the size of Italy, or maybe even Chile. It worked at first, but my heritage stuck out in strange places. My waist and hips lost their gargantuan dimensions, and my face took on that sexy angular look, complete with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that many people associate with third-world starvation. My breasts, however, never shrank down to normal size. Russia evacuated most of my body and the entire population took refuge in my chest. They threatened to secede and become countries of their own.
Eventually, I grew tired of trying to be the size of Switzerland. I could squeeze into smaller spaces, and at last I was pleased with the country staring back at me in the mirror. But the truth is, I never really fit into that shrunken frame. I was sick all the time, dizzy from my efforts to battle off sinister invaders like bread, cheese, potatoes, and even carrots, those dangerously carb-laden vegetables. I’d wanted to train for a marathon, but my body couldn’t seem to handle it. When I started to pass out after running too many miles without enough fuel, I decided that I couldn’t avoid my Russian heritage any longer.
I gently allowed my body the time it needed to grow again. At first, it was kind of fun – I enjoyed all the food I’d denied myself for so long, though I consumed a hearty serving of Jewish guilt with every bite. But after awhile, as my body regained its Russian proportions, I began to wish that there was anything I could do to abandon my genes – or squeeze into smaller ones.
My great-grandmother’s age finally crept up on her in the fall of my freshman year of college. She died at the age of 98, and I wrote poetry for her all morning, this woman who represented my past. She was one of my few family members who could tell me about Russia as she remembered it – a legacy far bigger than my body snuggled between the bodies of my foremothers and the daughters of our future.
These days, I still kvetch about my size. Having a Russian body means that shopping is devastating, my breasts hurt when the car goes over speed bumps, and every time I eat, I know that I’m feeding the Russian peasants who live in my thighs. Some days, I still look in the mirror and bemoan my figure, even though it is part of my past.
But other days, when I look at the curves of my breasts and hips, I can hear my ancestors laugh with full-figured good nature as they sit together over elaborate meals, passing the kugel and the stories across the table. This is where we enjoy old recipes cooked up and often exaggerated for flavor, this is where my own experiences collide with my history, and this is where my future will be – served up with a sizeable portion of memories, and shared with my zaftig, loving, Russian family.