Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Little Losses

May 17, 2014

Sayonara, Baby Beardie: A short tale of a short life

First, the tip of his tail broke off the way a burnt pizza crust breaks.

“Wilbur’s dying,” John said.

John had incubated the clutch and taught the neonates to eat—first roaches, a colony delivered by mail, arriving in the cardboard box marked “delicate” on the same day the chirpy exterminator came to evict the native pests in our apartment. Then John coaxed the neonates into hand-fed vegetarianism, with ribboned kale and dandelion.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life.  Nap time.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life. Nap time.

 

The little guy Dying, capital D? That made no sense. People didn’t expire from broken arms. Lizards shouldn’t expire from broken tails.

Wilbur was the runt; runts are supposed to live a runty, underdog life, giving us something to root for. They help us see the runty parts of ourselves, tucked behind our competence.

I protested, “But he’s so cute! Take it back” As if the universe had ever once made exception for cuties.  A special primordial panic sets in when anything in your care is dying. Pity the fly. Pity the spider-plant.

There should be a rule: if you have just been born, you can’t die for a bit. Amnesty.

But there is no such rule, no such amnesty, and no such guarantee. Infant mortality is still a major employment opportunity for The Stork’s dark brother. Clearly, life does not work differently for lizards than for any other creature.

Pregnant Expectations

When Sunny was pregnant, and too skinny for the job, I could feel her from the other room.  Not an “animal person” or even “kind of an animal person” (get it?), I communed with her unabashedly.

You know how women’s menstrual cycles will synch up when in one another’s extended company? So I worried about her Calcium dust and nutrient ratios. Before she was “with lizard”, it had been hard to remember that she existed, tucked away in the boys’ room under the heat lamp. Occasionally it was good fun to watch her put up with Drako’s male dominance dance, head-bobbing atop her; it looked like the volatile prayer of the ultra-religious with a little James Brown.

Yet once Sunny was gravid, the whole house seemed pregnant. Eventually, she dug frantically in the dirt box that John had prepared in the middle of the night. At sufficient depth, she dropped her clutch, covered them, and forgot they existed. So we took over their survival.

The eggs nestled in a Tupperware filed with dirt in a humid, heated, unused fish tank, well covered up against the descending autumn chill. It was hard not to anthropomorphize the situation: how could she let go of these new lives-on-the-edge, and not care for the fact that they were growing into form mere feet from her tank? Imagine if our gestation happened at a short, cold, unacknowledged distance from the womb? There are freaky movies about such things.

 

This is how it works post birth.

This is how it works post birth.

Eventually, the lizards hatched, rested and leapt forth, with extraordinary little burst of life facilitated by the handy egg-tooth. It made me really want an egg-tooth.  John and the boys lay on the floor and stared at them, these little prickles of creation.  And I stared at the three beloved boys staring at life. This may be something like what yoga means by “the Witness.”

Runty Days

Wilbur was the runt, and so he always needed more naps than the other eight. Just getting up from one nap necessitated another nap to recover. The rest of the brood stepped on his head, while climbing up the stick towards the heat lamp. Wilbur just took it, as if he was part stick.

His body was little, much littler than his head. It looked like he could have big thoughts about lizard things, but never gain that much ground.

We favored him. When we gave away the brood, we were going to keep him. In Charlotte’s Web, the runt not only lives, but also becomes a famous speller. Could we not hope as much for Wilbur?

I got your back.  Don't mind that I just stepped on your head.

I got your back. Don’t mind that I just stepped on your head.

But once the tail broke, once the pummeling started, even easy spelling words weren’t in the cards—only one, the Big D, the Big I, the Big E. The huge spiders zip-lining in our bathroom could write it all out for him.

The universe was sucking the meat back from his body through an invisible straw. Every day, Wilbur’s skin hung on him more and more. He was the world’s youngest old-man lizard.

John does not give up on any creature, of any size, of any species, no matter how unfriendly the creature (or human) might be toward him.  In this we unite.  But aside from weeping over a few failing tadpoles as a young person and trying to poke them onto a rock with a pencil tip, I’d never really tried to resuscitate an animal.

He pried Wilbur’s mouth open with a tweezer and fed him through a syringe, squeezing in a last-ditch drink of dandelion-leaf and egg whites we’d made with the hand blender, the kind of meal a paleo-athlete brags about. Most of this concoction came right back out of Wilbur’s mouth. He hardly had the energy to open up. Luckily, he would never have to go to the dentist.

John has a strong constitution; he can eat anything (expired meat), break anything (a few ribs), handle anything and still thrive. But stooped over, caring for this fragile creature, his physical strength was all in service to tenderness.  This is the kind of strength I vow my life to. In John’s palm lay a husk of a thing, drained of will.

When animals give up, they don’t need to make excuses for it. Done, their bodies announce. And off they go.

We put Wilbur in the bathroom sink and filled the basin with water to rouse him enough to administer the syringe. Little Q was helper, but he was squeamish, not sure he really wanted to: “It’s not nice to force someone to eat,” Q said.   Perhaps he was empathizing, since for his own mysterious reasons, perhaps mysterious even to himself, he often doesn’t want to eat the food set in front of him. (Unless it’s a cupcake.  Bless the eternal palatability of cupcakes).

Wilbur’s mouth opened by dim reflex. We respond despite ourselves to the feeling of water.

Over and Out

Wilbur died just then in John’s palm, but John didn’t say anything. Wilbur had drowned in his liquid meal, the best he could have hoped for. A smoothie for the last supper. Certainly, this drink would at least give Wilbur an athletic boost over the Big Vault. Into the Lizard Unknown.

That night, John dreamed of his own father, also two years dead. His dad, opining, was sitting on our couch. The reality of the feeling itself let him know it was a dream. The horribleness of that fact came creeping on, like the feeling of one’s bladder at capacity while sitting in car traffic in a tunnel.  Have you ever dreamed this way, woken to what’s worse, the loss made fresh? I’ve had this feeling after deaths, and I don’t know the word for it; I bet the Japanese do. It is bound up with yearning, but more existential.

Before dawn, out practicing with the Naga Buddha who, no matter what, clasps his-her hands in boggling faith, I could feel John’s sadness balloon in the bedroom; the sadness was another kind of pregnant, resonant as I had been with gravid Sunny. His dad could have been grabbing me by the collar and pulling me to the source of all sorrow. Sometimes love has you that yanked.

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

And when John woke up, he confirmed that not only was his dad dead, but Wilbur was too, and now he would wait for the children to wake up. Then, he would speak briefly about the beautiful frailty of life, and bury Wilbur in the biggest planter that we had.  Ugh, death; ugh! Every little loss gouges my chest.  Or maybe I, like Wilbur, was born with this gauge already activated. Creation draws up its funny contracts: Please check this box: I allow you to release my personal information to the universe. No, you cannot have an extension on your taxes.

Safe-Keeping

Like attracts like: the planter where we put Wilbur held an overgrown corn plant, which didn’t look like it would make it either. Despite all the months it had seemed to be dying, a species of palm tree frightened of the Northern low light, it hadn’t done so yet. It pains me to have indecisively dying plants around that just can’t seem to thrive or expire. They don’t have to waste their lives: I’m wasting it for them.

John brought the plant home for my birthday last year; it had been given away by a couple about to have a baby. They needed to reduce the number of other life forms and space-hoggers in their apartment, and so also sold us our dinning room table, made from old telephone poles. Sit here and bless the yummies that sustain us. K and Q and John and I sit at the table and link fingers and thank every little thing on our plates, “and especially the mac n’ cheese for being awesome.” Yes, especially that. Objects, creatures, all in transit. Invented cheese, in transit.

A little stone marks little Wilbur’s spot in his little plot of dirt. Surely the casing of a body would deteriorate quickly, and where there had been a Wilbur, richer soil would be, giving the corn plant a chance, or at least company. And so the cycle of life goes on. Pretty much right away, Q and K set about aiming at the headstone with a water-gun, as very temporary grief becomes play for resilient children.

In the night, I silently place the little runt at the center of my heart into John’s sleeping, half-open hands. For safe-keeping and safe-tending; for this unmeasured journey onto which we embark.

When Wilbur weakened, arms and legs splayed, looking like a cave drawing of a lizard, his desiccated tail had seemed so odd, wrong-sized, misplaced.   But when one crust breaks, so to speak, another dough is just rising. Feel, feel for the rising.

As light does

As light does

Note: This began as an essay I wrote for my 7th grade students as a grammar parsing exercise.  Which goes to show that attention to grammar, and deep love of 7th graders, can lead one to seeing life a bit more clearly.  Also below I am testing out moving away from MM’s longtime stance of representing humans by initials only.   It is hard to capture love in words without strattling the utmost corny of expressions.

 

Love’s Paraphernalia

October 28, 2013
Image

the phoenix we have. perfection in an imperfect frame.

Needing It

There are frogs living in the desert that only need to drink once every five years.  K, 8 years-old, tells me this excitedly over brussel sprouts and chicken sausage, which he pulls apart and eats with his fingers.

Every five years?  Nature is weird, but that’s pushing it.

He nods, and explains.  The frogs just take a really good soak.  And if a dehydrated human comes across one– lucky lucky!  You can just pick it up and squeeze it and drink to your delight out of its butt.

I have to fact-check that one.

But K is uproariously confident.  He is as full of nature facts as the frog is filled up with water.  He jumps from the fantastical existing creatures into mythological ones, with just as much scientific umph.  He tells me that the Phoenix’s egg combusts into fire, and then the phoenix is born anyway.

Like the rest of us?

Born, anyway.

Oops, Hee Hee

Q, 6, brings home a pet stick.

The stick is about the size of his forearm, thick, rained on a bit too recently and still holding water.

J says, You won’t believe what this stick can do. He gestures deferentially to the stick’s adept trainer, his younger son.   

Watch this, Q says, eyebrows raised, and tosses the stick across the room.  STAY!

The stick stays, with utter obedience.

Q claps with joy: Now that’s a great pet!

Wow, we say.  You just trained it to do that? 

Yes, Q says, anyone can.

Later, when we play our board game, he must slowly sounds out the word EXPRESSION.  Reading—one of the many things we non-sticks train ourselves to do.

E X P E N S I V E?

Nope, I say.  And cover the letters one by one, so he can tackle it in parts.

E X ER C IS E?

Nope, though expression can be an expensive exercise, for sure.

Eventually, when he is ready, he gets it right.  He has to stop in the middle to feed the pet stick.

Because the card we picked said so, I have to draw for him the expression “Don’t cry over spilled milk” while the sand timer runs out.  Funny, because this expression is exactly about using time wisely, not getting caught up in a past.

He watches me draw a carton, a cup, an overflow from the cup, a face crying.  He guesses wildly:  Milk!  Sad face!  Fall!

Something like that.

Anyway, K says later, why would you cry about milk?  You could always get down on the floor and lick it up.

Yes.  It really does taste the same.  The boys are unshy about rescuing fallen dinners in this way.

When we eat, we hook pinkies to thank every bit of food that made its way to our table.  Q leads us, extending sincere gratitude to the carrots, tomatoes, lettuce—and  what’s in the pesto? Mac’ n’ cheese.  S—me—for cooking.

When we let go, Q makes a halt sign with his hand, one green pea wedged at the depression between each finger.  Hand of peas!  He says gleefully.  Hand of PEACE! 

Like the feeling when your pet stick settles down for the night, when the dishes are clean on all sides, when there is no milk to cry over.

If you wish to weep, though, as the ordinary often provokes, there is instead the degree to which love has taken root in the storehouse of your life.   That is always fodder for tears.  Love is always a burning phoenix, with a bright egg in its center, ready to break open.

Breaking Open in Collaboration

Just End It Write Now

February 25, 2012

Writing After

Holy Surmounting

Writing after a long time of not doing so is like biking with a flat tire, uphill in a Chinook, loaded with too many groceries in the basket.   That much dread in the legs.  Some pyrotechnic, autogenic inspiration, or at least a mule-deer genie of the place, ought to help one surmount the landfill, crammed with non-expressive detritus of thoughts, between the last time you wrote, and this moment of articulation.

Instead, just a few curses now and then, which the wind handily tosses back in your face.  And then it starts to rain, as if Nature strives to impress Noah, one-upping his last watery debacle.  It rains so hard the foothills disappear.  You wonder about that elusive magic of the sentence, and why it has no refuge for you now.

I have been reading excessively beautiful material on grief, and it inspires me to return to the object of my own grief, a writing project I started and abandoned, because I couldn’t make it breathe.  I think of an herbalist I know, trying a third time to resuscitate a newborn, whose limpness is clear, because its mother is watching warily from the corner, the way she would watch a rabbit nearing the scarcity of her vegetable garden.

The project, now dormant, was a book I was to write on the life of my beloved friend Liz, who appeared in this blog as mortal and ghost alike and who died at 103 years-old, two Septembers past.   The time after someone dies is tracked like the time just after they are born: in months.

I send this missive up as a postmortem salutation, aiming for a respectful love as full as a full moon, which can’t get bigger, more itself, than it is at that moment– like the moon Liz died beneath, and like the being she was while she lived.

These missives are engineered by Imagination’s slight-of-hand: Undertakers loving the loads that they have undertaken. A rumination on the preposterousness of endings.

Your Terminal

Endings Perplex

Even though it can be hard to discern a person’s last true breath, the End that follows is usually impossible to miss—because, unlike all of the life that came before it, the End is unwavering itself.  Its status doesn’t change.  Facebook would cringe at the thought.

“THE END” is usually impossible to miss

When she was young, my little sister penned “THE END” on everything she created with MORBID FINALITY.  Even if her story was only two sentences in length, “THE END” took up the rest of the page—much like our END will supersede our existence in its infinite duration, compared with our brief presence.

Not only did she make clear where the end was, she sometimes pressed so hard with the pen that she ripped the paper—a penetrating finale.    The end could be like that, too, like a club smashed over whatever came before, the narrative adventure that led up to it.   As my sister wrote, her thick blonde hair spilled over the page like a magician’s curtain.  Her little girl fingers clutched the BIC pen (mightier-than-the-sword indeed) and spelled these two words more meticulously than any of the others, with the same kind of pen her Daddy used when he did things that looked Important.

Looking Important

And then she would hold out the story for someone to read.  “The End” hardly ever felt comfortable where it was, like a tundra overtaking the little word gardens above it.  No panning out with cinematographic flare, no red-ribbon’d sunsets, no rump of a horse riding off into the pastoral numb arms of nature, two riders atop:  just the short thread of a life—or lives—of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, which, as soon as possible, wound up cut.  At this juncture in her orthography, my sister still wrote many of her letters backwards. The direction of  a “b” or “d” was negotiable.  But “The End” never suffered from any adulteration: “The Enb” just wouldn’t carry the same authority.  I’ll try some Hemingway-esque shorties, in her style:

All “The Ends” are False– Except Maybe This One

The undertaker, enamored, carried her out of the room.  The End.

Some are more False than Others

The undertaker, enamored, carried her out of the room.  She walked right back in. The End.

Or, mitigating the blow

The undertaker, enamored, carried Liz out of the room.  But she didn’t go along completely.

When he came into her bedroom where she had died, he looked at her like he recognized her—little old lady, truth is beauty, beauty truth sort of thing—as if she resonated with the heroine of a verse he’d read as a child, something death could be, but never actually was.  She looked fresh as a daisy, as the saying goes, like she had actually rejuvenated, rather than stiffened and dried, in the hours since she went from creature to corpse.  Only the corners of her mouth looked suspiciously caked.

What is a dead person, really?  Traces of being alive and the suffering that is its hallmark remain on the body.  You want to see the bed-sore on her bottom?  It’s hard to move into stillness.  I want to know if the undertaker wills himself to forget that what is in front of him is a (former) person, or if he is content with matter as matter.

Flowering Conclusions

She’s got her last date with you: The End. That’s who waltzes her into the Grand Ballroom. We tucked the roses into the bed-sheet as he wrapped it around her.   She’d like the idea of two men taking her out; one tall, one short, it’s like the rhymes we had to memorize, the ditties.

When the pair comes to claim our dead—and I’ve only seen it happen twice– there is a tall one and a short one, evoking balance for those who say goodbye to the body.  See?  Some humans are big, some are small; some live on, some die and are done.

Liz didn’t think there was a God “upstairs”, but I had the feeling God’s Proxy was in the apartment on the floor above hers, tinkering, attaching her spirit to the Cosmic Pulley and hauling her up through the ether.  Even her spirit had heft, waited around the apartment like a drone of bees.  I heard the undertaker rattling out through the front doors, and suddenly the apartment was no place to be, like the monkey house at the zoo without any monkeys in it.  What is this strange smell? What once happened here?

What if the undertaker fell in love with her, like the rest of us had?  Maybe he would sing to her from the street, late September wind rustling about in the garbage, as he loaded her, wrapped up like a burrito, into the back of his dark car.  At that time, not one leaf had fallen, though Fall was just around the bend, hiding in the doorways, ready to surprise you with a temperature drop any morning now, any morning now.  Liz had been the first leaf on the Great Tree to go.  What is this pain so deep in my chest I feel some organ is trying to tie itself into a forget-me-knot?

The undertaker put her into the sleek trunk, meant for human equipage.  He crowed—just like the real crows, alighting on the benches, pinions flapping as poems do in the sky of grief, triumphing over the toppled ice cream cups in the dusty Champ De Mars.   Look at this bounty, fallen, mine.

Yes, she agreed, pragmatic more than romantic.  Very well. Get on with it.

He got on with it.

That-a-way

Mountain of Roses

April 15, 2011

Written with utmost gratitude to my family in Israel: You have such strong hearts. 

“Each life converges to some centre,

Expressed or still.”

–Emily Dickinson, LXI

expressed in stillness

Real Life Stranger than Figs

My rat-a-tat-tatty purple yoga mat, shredding its rubbery dandruff under my hands, stays behind in Israel, land of figs and honey, when I leave.  The mat is in every way unspecial but, like other ritual objects, it seems to have taken on a character and vivacity.  By proximity, it knows something about me that I don’t.

Coming and Going, coming and going, it clucks at me, while I squish my clothes into my travel backpack, forgetting which pocket holds my clean underwear and which my dirty.    The mat has more of my skin cells than I do.

All good yoga mats should be in Israel when they meet their end, I console it, in the distracted condition to which packing reduces me. You’re totally used up! 

 Lame, my mat says, in the tone your mother uses to get your attention. But like the trusty mat it has been, it leans against the wall with utter patience.  It doesn’t mind being clung to.  It doesn’t mind being let go.  That’s why it’s rubber.

 Israel has just rolled into its succulent time.  Benai Berak, the neighborhood where my Aunt and Uncle live with their ever-burgeoning family, is a tiny holy enclave outside Tel Aviv.  It is impoverished and disheveled; yet roses and citrus trees bloom recklessly on the perimeter of the limestone apartment buildings.   Certain kinds of beauty are unstoppable.

"Flowers in the Desert"

Dont try to stop this

I had only one fig while I was there—it was not quite their season.  The fig was a disappointment; it was dehydrated (like me), sulphured (not like me), sugary and squished in a plastic container with its figgy brethren.  It looked shellacked.  The fig tasted like righteous, processed seed.  The grocery store proprietor, a Sephardic with a potbelly like a classroom globe, grinned a proprietary grin:  foreigners had a knack for wanting the expensive shit, didn’t they.

I grinned back, being just that kind of Figgy foreigner.

Figs on the outskirts

In the figinning...

Israeli honey I glimpsed once: at the Duty Free shop by the Delta departure gate.  It promised to be pure.  But purity by the spoonful paled beside the prospect of not being able to fit my carry-on luggage into the overhead bin.  So I skipped the sweetness and joined the line of passengers impatiently waiting to board.  But I had honey on the mind, a long, gooey strand of thought that stretched thousands of miles.

Delta Dogs

Know Where You Are

Orientation


 International travel is hopelessly funny.  It dredges up and makes defunct your best concept of normalcy.

 God, so busy abiding in His infinite and unfathomable perfection, has no time to fuss about airline safety.  He needs his minions to be thorough and vigilant.  As we prepare for take-off, a Chassid, his peyos flapping, flips open his cell phone, fires off text messages—regulations be damned.  When the attendant, a bleach-blond in a tart, fire-truck red Delta dress passes by, he covers his operation sloppily with a pillow.  My sister eyes him down the aisle, as if his intentions are truly seditious.  He’s gonna bring down this plane, her stare saysHer J had told her that to interfere with the traffic signals, everyone on the entire flight would have to receive a call at the same time.  But nonetheless.  The Chassid blows his nose on the red Delta blanket and then tucks it back into its original plastic packaging.  His phone is still blinking as we gain on the moon.  He pulls out a garbage bag full of sandwiches from beneath his seat, sniffs at each of them, and then chooses one over which to pray.  And the lord separated the wheat from the chaff and the Muenster from the Cheddar. 

Another religious Jew in his idiosyncratic garb piles his prayer books on his tray table until they are high enough that he can rest his head on them and sleep.  He asks my parents to switch seats so that he will not be sitting next to a woman—especially a number like my beautiful Mom. Heaven forbid their elbows touch and electrify the easily-tripped circuits of desire.  Elbow to elbow, the great chain of being goes on.  “Lest the pack should get lost in the dark.”

Many of the passengers throw their trash directly into the aisles.  When I go to the toilet in the back of the plane—the cleanest of the six—I see water suddenly begin to spurt, then rush, out of an upper cabinet in the rear deck.  A flight attendant, hands set brusquely on her hips, watches it with me, as if she were observing an orangutan alphabetize spices.  “No one is responsible except Murphy” her grimace seems to say as she picks up the intra-flight phone, and nonchalantly reports, “Yeah, the ice is going.  I’m just going to wait ‘til it’s done.”  “Do you want me to get my blankets for you?” I ask.  Or the booger blankets, I want to add. “No,” she says, entirely unconcerned.  The water spills out into the aisle and runs backward, with gravity, towards the bathrooms and the tail of the plane.  I step out of its way and watch an elderly man toss an empty plastic cup carelessly to the floor.  He doesn’t even look to see if anyone is looking—ignorance ignorant of itself.   I wonder how many things can go amiss in flight before it is unsustainable, and the plane plummets back where it came from like a kite in car wash.

Turn the Rosy Cheek

When I ask my Uncle if he ever has doubts about the choice to live this ultra-orthodox existence with its particular constraints, he refers me to a meaningful quotation from Torah.  A fence of roses, the Torah calls the many rules and laws by which the faithful abide.  Yes, we live inside a fence, but it’s not a bad fence!  I imagine how many roses it would take to weave an enclosure for even a single being’s life; thousands, millions, maybe even billions.  That fence would smell like the First Garden in June and require intensive treatments with manure.

Roses in the gardens

Hedging your bets

No Dead Time, my uncle says, twinkles in his eyes and exaltation in his voice, of how they pass their days in this community.  As far as I can tell, he’s had on the same blue-black cardigan for the last three decades.  The same slightly scuffed black sneakers, which lack the kind of support that would make them actually useful for exercise.  In this kind of religious life, you always know what to do—what to do with yourself– when you wake up in the morning.  If you want, every moment of your day is prescribed for you.  There is a prayer that frames even the tiniest gesture.  Think fast before you bite that pear.

At moments when I feel at a total loss for guidance, direction, this kind of structure seems almost sensible, at least consoling.  It is the fence, here, that enables and yields a beautiful life—that is, if one decides that what is within the fence is, in fact, beautiful.  Commentary on this Torah passage reads, “Ideals can prove more effective barriers than metal walls.” So if I see the Roses, conjoined into a boundary, and call them perfect, all the barbed wiring in the world couldn’t do a better job of keeping me exactly where I am.

Shadow on Roses

My fence has a lot of gaps

Exactly Where I Am

My cousin, B, fourteen years old, his yarmulke tilted from Purim pleasures, brings my dad the salt-shaker as soon as we arrive from the airport.  Melach! He says, handing it to my dad as we are shuttled to the table, where we will spend most of the ten days that follow.  They remember everything about us from last time, four years ago: our strange tastes and predilections, our excess use of salt, my twisted relationship to tea, my mother’s jogging routines.  There is a rumor that I only eat vegetables.  B hovers over my dad, watching him salt everything on his plate, amused.  When my dad puts down the shaker, he hands it right back to him, gestures at the food, as if one should be able to see the salt like a film of snow.  Then B beckons for his drunken brother-in-law to pass the wine, turns the bottle of Ultra-Kosher Cabernet upside-down, draining it into a plastic cup so flimsy it is almost saran wrap.  Two drops fall out: “L’Chaim” he says,  “You must drink it all at once, and get drunk.”  He looks in his dictionary, whose pages have been well-thumbed.  The word he is looking for is “necessary.”

Where the action happens

Clean Pate and Clean Plate

In the mornings, my cousins, fairly self-sufficient from a young age, crack eggs into a plastic cup and fry them in the black, worn skillet.  Eggs and sesame challah and the immediacy of God: a breakfast for Moses’ champions.  Everyone in that house functions on a different time zone.  My Aunt, who bore ten babies and miscarried one, has been an insomniac for over twenty-five years—first because I was always nursing someone, and then because I’m just crazy, she explains with a smile. And then I had to learn how to walk again after each baby. She loves the house and being at home.  Moreso, she loves the concept and practice of a simple home that is as infinitely elastic as the human gene pool.  Each baby was a new rose. Everything she describes she transforms into a miracle.

Generating the generations

Baby and baby of baby

We all have to pick, build and tear down our own fences.  The absence of fence is not necessarily freedom.  Some fences are invisible, agreed to by the subtle mind and therefore unchallenged.  Some fences are half-falling down and poorly maintained—staked sloppily enough that one trips over them from time to time, and so knows they are there.  How powerless any one being truly is, my Uncle says, with a hand-gesture that indicates in this predicament only the creator has our water-wings.  But this is where we differ; I think a person—any person– is the most powerful thing there is.

A Weepy Wall

The buckets in the holy square

Washing is no secret


At the Kotel ha-Ma-aravi, the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, prayers are scrawled on pieces of scrap paper and stuffed into the cracks in the stone.  Passing notes to God: Pssssssst!  It was a wet and cold day when we visited, which made crying superfluous.  I had to wrap my scarf around my head and wear two jackets, but still the damp weather got into my bones like a ghost new at haunting and overexcited to do so.

Prayers at the frontline

Read my mind

Jews from all over the world converge upon this remnant, where Shekinah has lodged itself, like a piece of popcorn in a molar, since the destruction of the 2nd temple.  The wall is unremarkable—actually an outer wall of the temple proper.  Poor King Solomon, who tried to build G-d a suitable house, not realizing that G-d is more of a couch-surfer, later got distracted by his squadron of foreign wives.  Desire concretized into its own inner idol, which no Nebuchadnezzar could conflagrate.   (It may be the good luck endemic in this architecture that made me spell “Nebuchadnezzar” correctly on the first try. O.K.—the second try).

How many times a day or week did the groundskeepers clear out those crumpled requests?  Some of the papers were wedged deeply into the gaps in the masonry; something thin and sharp, like a dentist’s tool, would be needed to retrieve them.  Perhaps whoever maintained the wall also read the prayers personally, purveyors of secrets—that or threw them in the trash. It was a job I wanted, unionized or not.   Somewhere, there must be a garbage bin allocated specifically for expired pleas.  Or, worse: a recycling truck. This purse is made entirely from re-used scraps of prayer; proceeds from this purse go to help those whose prayers were not answered because they were never read. 

Prayers answered

My tribe sees the sun

You cannot turn your back on the wall as you depart the square—or you can, but that’s like letting your toddler oversee the stir-frying.  You keep the wall in your line of sight as you slowly back up.  Something like this is also the protocol for departing a temple in Asia without breaking gaze with the Buddha, and for encountering a wild animal.  Of all the ways to die, being eaten alive might be the most primordial.  The wall, however, does not harm you, should you turn away; but it notes your half-heartedness and, as is done for a student caught cheating on an exam, lops off some points on your celestial report card.  Best to keep your intent fixed—to maintain your prayer in your line of sight until it blends with the bricks and mortar and is indistinguishable from the structure itself.  Nothing special.

One does not need to visit such a real wall with great frequency; the wall(s) of the mind, of things longed for but not obtained, usually suffices.   I have wedged so many notes in the cracks of this mental edifice—notes from me to myself.  Some of them sit there still.  Some of them fall out when I breathe deeply.  Some of them have gone through (!) to the little Guru, a diminished God with a stenographer’s pad sitting inside my pituitary gland beneath a parasol, to protect her from the occasional monsoon of hormones.

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, God decides to check betweens two rocks and, good-humored, perhaps because the Magnolias are in bloom, and the wild spray of pink abounds, answers exactly.

Candles in the Holy Sepulchre

But do you speak the language of fire?

Masada

We watch an extraordinary moon rise over the Dead Sea, from the Balcony of a hostel, where a fellow traveler tells me about excursions on his family bicycle as a teen.  He would take his bike and go as far as he could go in any direction, wait, and then, long after school hours, return home.  He drinks an Israeli beer and looks at the commanding Moon as it crosses and then takes over the horizon.   In his mind, I think, he’s riding his bicycle towards outer space, and there is no reason to ever turn around.  Behind us, Mt. Masada—a hiccup of a mountain— looms, topped off with the remains of a BC-style Jewish fortress community. Everyone at the hostel is staying there with the intention of summiting it, either on foot or by tram.

Morning unbroken over dead sea

Taster

My mother, father, sister and I hike the mountain in at the edge of morning, after all four of us lie in our narrow, mildewed bunk beds in the hostel dormitory, sleeplessly blinking into the night air, the mosquitoes playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe.  You know something is going to dawn.  There is a certain ambition involved in hiking a holy site—the expectation that it will be hard, that you will work to summit, that you will understand that the reward, for the faithful, was to be that much closer to the hemline of God’s fancy-shmancy white shmata.  As we hike, to our left, the moon creeps down behind the plateau while the Sun comes out over Jordan and the Dead Sea begins to blue.  The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world.  God’s hole-in-one: where concentration of salt in the water separating Israel and Jordan keeps the great ball of fire from sinking.

Laying down the law

Even though we begin before five a.m., there are two busloads of Teenagers ahead of us on the trail: Birthright Israel trips in which a participant not only must ride a chartered vehicle all over the nation, but undergo physical challenges with The Tribe.  One asthmatic teenager, checking to see if her iPhone gets reception on the ascent, sits down on one of the steps cut into the mountain.  Je-sus!  She says dramatically to her friend.  I’m not going to make it, this is sooooooooo hard.  Her friend is chewing gum vigorously.  She sits down too, chews even harder, like she’s storing mastication power for some later use.  They smooth their hair, then one another’s, religiously.  A bus ride is rough on the coif.

At the top of Masada, where a well-preserved fort community still has enough of its foundation in tact that the imagination can play architect with the raw matter, the Sun blasts over the buttes and cliffs and the breeze picks up.  One can imagine the Jews hording water and wheat and whatever else was needed for survival.  The tour guides begin to orient their students to the facts; one guide, who tells his bunch from the outset they are going to do and learn everything faster than all the other groups declares as a lone black bird cuts through the open air; “the Romans are just like F-in McDonalds…they do the same thing everywhere.”

Everywhere.  The trails marking the Roman siege efforts are still imprinted in the rolling desert.  You can practically feel the Latin profanity, uttered by soldiers decades ago, wafting up from the rubble, where they waited under the swash-buckling Orion for enough morning light to see the way to empire.

Buttes off Masada

Eyecandy for the Romans

Bending

It’s still the quiet part of the morning; only my Uncle is up, studying.  I slide the glass door to the front room closed, unroll my mat, and practice.  The floor is linoleum and often scattered with crumbs.  I’m doing idol-worship for sure as I bow down to the enigmatic shapes of the breath, but my Uncle, asking with a vocal wink if I’ve learned to levitate yet, lets me go for it, even in his house where sacrilege is no small potato.  The clock on the wall is a half-unrolled, gilded Torah Scroll and ticks as if trying to prove a point: time, time, time.  Long breath holds, in which I can feel my heartbeat making a racket against my ribs.   My cousin, M, sticks her head in the door when she returns from her night job in the girls’ dormitory—Yoga, or exercise?  She asks.  I shake my head.  Something. Nothing. 

Coming and Going, coming and going, my mat whispers.

She ducks out again, slides the door shut.  Conversation and prayer begin audibly in the kitchen.

I love you, I say.  I don’t know who I am talking to; my mat, is doing the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” thing, familiar from the elementary school yard.

I love you, I say again.  I’m talking to the room.  I’m talking to my family.  I’m talking to all the people that cannot hear me, to the wall, to the presence behind the Wall, to the eggshells, to the waning moon, to the air, to what’s here and what’s hereafter.

Sand, Salt, Sea, Sky

But can you find the line?