By S.L. Wisenberg
Inside each of us is the one saying no no and the one saying yes yes and the one asking maybe. Maybe now? Maybe this? Maybe him? Asking, what if I do this? Or this? Or this? Or if I eat my bread like this, if I make my bed so, if I do my work thusly — then will the messiness of extraneous doubt disappear?
The women in my family do not work. They are frightened and polite. They fluff up pillows and re-cover sofas just before their dinner parties. They dampen soft cloths to dust the tops of frames of non-objectionable art prints. In another era, they would stay inside the circumference, the eruv, the private area of our ancestors’ shtetl, and would not venture into the place where they felt frightened. The eruv marks a boundary that extends the concept of home, so that you can carry things on Shabbat. It is a loophole. We do not strive to keep the Sabbath, so we do not seek loopholes.
I must amend the above. Our foremothers were not confined by the eruv. They traveled by foot and cart to the marketplace to buy fabric and root vegetables, to haggle with the peasants, while the men stayed inside buildings, arguing over meanings across shaky wooden tables. They would get lost in the texts, trail home after dark.
My therapist charges $100 for forty-five minutes. Just talking. I amuse her, and she makes me cry for at least a whole afternoon after the session. With her few words: “You are extremely sensitive, without insulation. You don’t do what you want. You are afraid to say how you feel. What you have may be biological and you may want to consult with a psychiatrist.”
The eruv nowadays is designated by a wire that is placed alongside telephone or electric wires. You must get city and utility permission and proof of insurance. No one in my family stays literally inside an eruv. They are not so religious that they even know where one is. They are not agoraphobic either. They feel at home when consuming. They hold multiple charge accounts, are welcomed by name when they enter stores where a bell goes off when anyone enters.
My lover, C, says to me, “You seem like you did something terrible. What did you do? What’s the worst thing you did?”
Me? I killed a frog when I was eight. I don't write thank-yous to my grandparents. There was a pro bono design proposal I didn’t finish. It would have expanded the juvenile detention center, but I hated the guy I worked with. He was an ex-con, and I couldn’t understand his stutter and felt awkward around him, and one day, in his car, he grabbed the bag of peanut shells I was saving to throw away and tossed it out the window. He smoked and it curled around my nose and went down into my lungs.
In another life I was an assassin. I believe in original sin.
I am thinking: I feel the burden of the Holocaust. The victims felt guilty. That is the reason they went like sheep. I know you’ve heard that the assimilated ones were so secure that the abundance of acceptance and prestige insulated the bourgeois in Germany and Austria. That is not so. They — whose forebears were accused, attacked, murdered, whose houses were burned — they also walked in fear, these citizens with no accents, they trembled, they still looked over their shoulders while chatting in the smart cafés of Berlin and Vienna, smoke curling over their backs. They never lost the fear that traveled like a blemish on the DNA replicating through the desert and the Holy Land and on through cities and tiny villages and even the countryside. Afraid they deserved nothing short of death. I feel that I was there, wherever there was pain. I know this identification is a form of self-indulgence, so I keep it from you, protect you from it, my darling C, from this remembrance of ancient attacks, afraid of my scars opening and bleeding onto you.
And he asks me, “Why are you afraid?”
I did not grow up with a work ethic. I would struggle up to the last moment, skidding into home on my superior brains. I was raised to be quiet and think clever thoughts that I would whisper to the boy in front of me who would take the credit. I was raised to make posters of information I already knew, to research and replicate tables from the encyclopedia, to fear the sharpness of critical thought, of criticism itself, to prostrate myself at its touch. I was raised to play at working and to be petted and to feel afraid and alone because I suspected that not everyone had managed to slip through these same rules. I was raised to expect trapdoors, escape hatches, elastic deadlines, no doors swinging back into my face.
And because of this, because of the soft taste of meringue in the pies thrown at me, because of the slaps that became soft tickles by the time they made contact, because four o’clock always meant seven-thirty or eight or tomorrow morning, because of that, I feel loose as a colt without fences. But not a wild colt — a domesticated colt raised with others who are tightly reined, disapproving of them but admiring their sleek, disciplined bodies.
I called the psychiatrist whom the therapist recommended and finally talked to the British-accented scheduler. She has made an appointment for me to see him at one p.m. in a month and a half. She is sending me a map. He will charge $400 for two hours. I could go on vacation for that. That’s part of the advertising campaign in the subway stations and on the L cars — bodies lying in the sand with these words across them: stress therapy.
My cousin Judy’s daughter already, at seven, has love handles and I think: Will she lose this baby fat or does she have a hard life ahead of her? I look at Judy, growing mountainous, and wonder whether her husband has seen this gradual growth and accepts it, as more to hold onto in the dark, or whether he mentally scrapes off twenty pounds from her hips when he sees her in her black skirts, trying to pretend as she’s trying to distract with her eyeliner and mascara on upper and lower lashes.
I tell the therapist, “I want someone with a stamp to stamp my face: Approved. Grade A No #1 choice.” I look at her sideways to make sure she knows I’m speaking symbolically only. She knows that statistics and titles are important to me: top percentile SAT, GRE, Phi Beta Kappa, Ph.D.
The psychiatrist’s scheduler asked, “What level education have you attained?” And “Single, married, ever married?” And “Do you have a work number?” Ever so gently because you never know. I could be too crazy to inflict myself on others, to take part in the great world of commerce. But I do participate in the marketplace. I am a city planner. Before I went back to school, I worked in an ad agency. I drew storyboards for campaigns to sell household products. I animated singing soap pads, bouncing fix-it men, a long-bristled broom. Someone else wrote the music, but often I created the germ of the song. Occasionally, on the bus, I heard children, usually afflicted with some form of echolalia, chanting the commercials: “I sweep galore, I sweep galore, I will floor you, I will floor your floor.”
My mother always said, “I’ll do anything for my daughter.” We would fight at breakfast over who would die for whom, and that is the problem.
I never knew anyone who was a city planner, but one day, in the ad agency, the guy at the next desk was ranting about pro bono work for the city. I said I would do it and spent a week drawing storyboards for a campaign to get people to reclaim abandoned property. The city department of revenue up and used it in ads and I thought: Ho, how easy it all is to do good in the world. I went back to school and started over, the way you think of the world starting anew each sunrise. And I saw that you could make something from nothing, nothing — not really nothing, but a slew of vacant lots — you could put something into effect by working with the world. And I thought: This is the Peace Corps right at home. I went to school and learned to draw plans to make cities beautiful, and back then I still believed that council members chose the most rational and attractive plan because it was best for the most people.
When I was growing up, my aunt would take from the drawer her daughter Judy’s unfinished home ec projects and say, “What do you think of someone who makes a beautiful dress and never hems it?” I would think of Judy’s near-perfection daily. And now, on the wall in my cousin’s home, is a quilt beautifully sewn and hemmed. She made it herself. Change is possible.
On the radio I heard a man who had sexually abused his daughter and decided to go public. His wife and daughter were also at the studio, and you could tell he wanted to control the daughter, and I didn’t believe him when he said he’d been so close to going for help he could smell it. Instead he was caught; his wife turned him in. And I called in and waited five minutes for my turn on the air and I said, “How can you change?” Thinking of the way everyone always says to me: “Put a smile on your face; it’s not so hard as that.” And he said, “What about you? If a man were abusing you, wouldn’t you do something?” And I said, “Yes, yes, I would.”
I walk down the street expecting disaster, wondering if the insurance premium envelope — so fragile, so white — has reached its destination. In the kitchen I nearly welcome the roaches crawling on the counter: they belong there, a sign of the blackness of my soul; they are here, making my failure apparent. No longer do I have to fear because the end is here.
Terrorists. A bomb. A burglar.
The losing of the keys. The lateness to a presentation. The destruction of computer files. The worst has arrived.
The psychiatrist’s scheduler says, “What exactly is the matter?”
I tell her that the therapist suspects my physiology, that I get anxious, this lump in my throat, three days at a time, or thirty minutes, it passes, it makes me feel the world is futile.
“Heart pounding?” she asks. “Sweaty palms from nowhere, trembling knees?”
“No,” I say. “Not the panic attacks that are striking any and all.”
She says, “It may not be anything. Are you sure you want to come in? Can you just try to forget about it? Does it really bother you?”
And I want to shout: “Would it bother you to feel on the verge of tears, to know you are overreacting, to feel it is all a failure of will?”
And I don’t know if she means that it’s not anything, or that it’s not anything the psychiatrist could help.
My cousin Judy spends her days both with her daughter who accuses, “You just take me ice-skating so you can be with your friends,” and with the younger child who vomited his first year of life and now has what they call glue ear and constant flus and viruses. Her carpool schedule is stuck on the refrigerator with magnets; a deck of cards is tucked inside a box inside a drawer — something precious to dispense to small hands who scatter everything. And I ask about her life, and I can’t find her life to ask about. It’s her children, her husband, her mother, her two sisters and the one brother who died, whom we all loved, but I can’t say that to her, the things I meant to say but couldn’t: that I don’t know how you survive a brother — a brother who is gentle, laughs awkwardly, always ordered two different dressings with his salad, always had a hand on my shoulder, who was in remission but then went — like that. And I didn’t send a card because I didn’t know what to say, and I, who could have alleviated pain, didn’t. My mother’s reproving eyebrow. I loved him too, and my other cousin named a child for him, and what did I do? Tucked up two states north, I did nothing and didn’t feel his death and was already far away. How do you bury him, and how do you clean his apartment, and does your husband understand your grief for your only brother? Everyone is dying, and everyone says that Judy is so good with others who are grieving, and I either fly down for funerals or not.
There is the belief I carry that always I was out of sorts, something organic they should have noticed (psychiatrists costing less than $400 then); that in pictures I was sullen. But now I look in scrapbooks and I am always grinning, so delighted to be holding the Barbie or sharing the straw hat or reading the book I’d received for a present. And only in two photos am I frowning, refusing to go with the photographer’s idea of what I should be like. And which are the true times, and which are the faces I put on for company or for posterity or to prove a point? Which are the crazy times and which are the times you say: “Oh, don’t pay attention to how I was yesterday; that wasn’t me”?
C says, “Why don’t you try running?”
I know it will bring euphoria flowing through my veins, good air pushing out the bad.
I make a list. Exercise:
saves your bones
keeps you young
Energy creates energy, but I’m too tired to change my clothes.
Always thinking you’re going to die or be paralyzed because you deserve to die. Elephants stomping you in your sleep on the edge of your consciousness.
The old ads: One third of your life — spend it dreaming on Wamsutta.
Nazis tried to wipe out every Jew — one third of the planet’s Jews, one third of every living Jew’s heart and soul.
Mind jumping — always a way of life of thinking.
Judy says, “This, this anxiety is the way of all artistic personalities. Goes with your territory.”
C is asleep under my red velvet bedspread, and he says, “Wake me in twenty minutes,” then, “wake me in fifteen minutes,” and then, “I feel bad when I take you from your work.”
And I am willing to leave my work for him because I had all day to do it; Sunday is my day to finish up what I didn’t in the office. And instead of doing the research on zoning, I rinsed salad vegetables in lukewarm water and then drained them and shook them and whirred the lettuce through the salad spinner and chopped the others. And if I hadn’t done that, I would have gone to the store for salad already made (thinking: I could make this myself; it would be lots cheaper).
And I get the clutching tightness when I’m with him and I want to deserve him. I want to lose the tightness, so I can love him and be loveable. I will go with him and am afraid to say: “No, I don’t want to go there; I want to be alone.”
“Ghostly father, I confess. For I have sinned.”
What Jews say: “Forgive, purify, sanctify, show mercy. For we have trespassed, we have been faithless, we have robbed, we have spoken basely, we have been presumptuous, we have done violence, we have forged lies, we have scoffed, we have persecuted, we have gone astray, we have led astray.”
Each Yom Kippur, I try to get inside the lines like an actor and don’t succeed. The Jew is required to go to the person against whom you have sinned, asking for forgiveness.
God, this is how I lived my life this day —is it acceptable? We are so worried that we ask God’s forgiveness because we want someone to say: “Yes, yes, you’re fine, keep up the good work.” May it be thy will, oh Lord, may the words of my mouth be acceptable unto Thee, my rock and redeemer.
For the night is dark, and we are weary, and there is much we don’t do.
And how was your week? God wants to know. Your version at least. He too longs for amusement.
What is that joke? Construction worker, who steals material from construction sites, comes to confession for the tenth time, and priest says, “Make a novena” and he says, “If you’ve got the plans, I got the sheetrock.”
I said to C that I fear disfigurement, fear some terrible accident. Afraid to say the word: paralyzed. I said I would turn to Jesus. He said, “I hope not.” He said, “You’d think those people would hate God.” I said, “You’d think so, but they have to find a reason. They need to hook into the ways of the world even more. If you can’t partake of commerce or only in a limited, cushioned way, then you must cast your line and become part of the commerce, the give and take of the spirit.”
I have seen old Jews turn to prayer and consider it a mechanism to escape the void formed by retirement and death of friends — not a last-ditch attempt to save their souls, as it might be for Christians. I’ve always imagined our immortal soul as something that cleans itself, gets purified through our death throes, perches on a breeze, cavorts like the smoke that flies up the flue when you cremate a body.
When I was a kid, I read this big blue book by Danny Kaye, stories from around the world. Anansi the Spider, a Chinese boy who captured a bird, different versions of Snow White and Rose Red. And all of them were like puzzles. If you could just understand the system, understand the words beneath the words, you’d be safe.
Danny Kaye was some official or unofficial ambassador to children of the entire world, and he tried to be some sort of humanitarian — children at his knee, clamoring to touch his funny mouth.
Do the stories matter? Do scattered-site housing projects matter? Do immunizations matter? When my cousin Judy went to Peru, the summer she was sixteen, there arose a great rumor in all the newspapers that they were sterilizing the people instead of vaccinating them against TB and diphtheria, and she had to fold up her tent and leave. Before that happened, she wrote to me of this old Mayan woman who didn’t speak Spanish, who had this thing Judy had trouble explaining — an old Mayan woman who knew something about the verities, who knew something deep about life that Judy somehow picked up. It was not so much the content of what the woman knew, but Judy came to believe that she herself could understand what it felt like to have such knowledge, and a deep calm came to settle in her. And she knew that it was possible to understand the seasons.
And was she ever the same?
And now, in this country, so many are suspicious of the vaccines: they turn away, not caring that their children could infect strangers, especially the delicate.
C must be begged to go to the doctor for a look at his ankle or thumb, always injured from something healthy — basketball, bike riding. He rides forward, unafraid. I tell him this and he says, simply, “It’s much easier than riding backwards.”
My mother does not understand the panic of her old college roommate’s daughter who has become a size three after years of being the fattest in her school. The daughter feels all her power has drained away. “I’m so small,” she says. She cannot say the word thin. At gatherings people gape at her. She is getting her master’s in public health, after working the counter of the family’s jewelry store. Her husband, who has a Ph. D in history, is, however, out of work. We speculate about what he must do. “He’s read enough history,” says my mother’s old roommate, who is afraid that her son-in-law will one day go under, be swallowed up, destroying some balance, or become forever adrift in the library. When this woman invites the couple to dinner, he tries to lose himself among the stacks of books.
My cousin’s daughter makes a distinction between straight hair and “sweetie” hair. Her mother has sweetie hair. “Mine,” she says, “is both.” This is the beginning, we all realize, of a Family Myth. Or rather Family Lexicon. We will tell her boyfriend or her children or remind each other at Thanksgivings and Passovers: “Do you remember when you were little, Debra, and used to say that your mother had sweetie hair?”
When we went to bury my grandmother, I wandered among the graves and saw where my neighbor, Howard Epstein, was buried. He was younger, when he died, than I was at that moment. The family plot was full: his parents from a car accident when he was three; his grandfather 20 years later and his grandmother five years after that. They raised him. All of a sudden he contracted — if that is the right verb — Hodgkin’s. It is always sudden, I suppose. That is what my cousin died of, suddenly snatched from remission. Howard was married for a year, and before that, he was living in sin, which always sounds more exciting than it actually is. And now, he left a widow — young, thin as a reed, pretty enough to call pretty even if you didn’t know her. She moved to Arizona with him for his graduate school. Moved back, and I hear she moved again to Austin to lose herself in biochemistry.
Howard’s uncle lies next to him, the body shipped there after he died during the encephalitis epidemic. Left him sitting too long in the ER in New York City and he died waiting. Could have been . . . Could have shot him with some drug . . . Could have saved his . . .
“Can you live with it?” asked the psychiatrist’s scheduler. Live with it, and maybe this lump of tension in my throat will be like someone else’s sciatica or low blood sugar or test anxiety or shingles. And you think: Oh God, what did the Epsteins ever do to deserve this wrath upon their house, and what did the Jews in Europe do to be blotted out like that?
When I went to a social worker for therapy, I would see drug addicts and alcoholics in the waiting room. One day I had to wait for a man, who was grizzled and probably unemployed, to finish; the kind of man I would see in soup kitchens when I was doing background work for planning the locations of homeless shelters. I remarked on him to the social worker, something about counting my blessings, and I saw a flash of triumph in the social worker’s eyes. Yes, those eyes of her were saying: “count those blessings of yours. Every one of them every night.”
Walt Whitman, they say, had no hierarchy; he didn’t classify or separate one natural element from the other but was always rejoicing. How to decide where to rest your eye? Your sight, like a bird, hovering here and there.
The famous Holocaust survivor comes to town, and a man introduces him, mentioning criminals and barbarians and a little boy and his family, trying to make it universal for the ill-at-ease Gentiles in the audience. Then the survivor talks about specificity, and then he sits there at the table telling jokes about the parsha, the Torah portion for that week, about Abraham and Isaac, and you see, in your mind, a circle closing. Somehow he’s healed, almost succeeding in repairing the world by his gifts; here he’s speaking to a large audience and trying to gather them into the fold, to come back to God and Zion, to listen to him, the teacher, and he’s making them laugh.
He is saying, through his smile, “This is what I would have been had the Holocaust never happened. And here I am, whole and happy, in a dark suit, a long face and deep, sad eyes.”
And, “Carry your ancestors inside you,” he says. “History in your bones. Being Jewish means being immortal.”
“And Isaac,” he says, “the name means laughter.”
C will not go pray with me. He doesn’t believe, except he wonders how molecules could have invented themselves. I think the universe is smart enough to have caused itself and therefore disbelieve, but I feel God’s hot breath on my shoulder. God must exist, someone says, because existence is so funny. They say Jewish humor comes from a helpless person in an impossible situation. A helpless smart person — and in that lies the wide-eyed irony.
“Four men,” says the Famous Survivor, “saw a sacred garden. One lost his life, one lost his mind, one lost his faith. One entered in peace and left in peace.”
At the office I make lists: Things I want to do this week. Of course I realize right away that everyone else writes simply: Things to do this week. I saw a therapist on TV who can infer feelings from words and so can teach her clients how to change their words to change the feeling. Strange alchemy. Must should would. Might maybe hope. Am. Feel. Am is are was were. Able was I ere I saw Elba.
C is looking for work. He makes a good salary as a real estate lawyer, work he only sometimes enjoys because it wears him down to be so often on the side of the powerful. He does not like meeting with them in their offices and clubs. “I’m eminently desirable” he says, and it’s true. He is qualified and so becomes despondent when he looks for jobs on the nonprofit sites and finds no work in public interest firms. I put my arms around him, but only after he says, “Hold me hold me.”
I don’t want to pry, but ask, “What does it feel like for you to be sad?”
“My head is heavy,” he says.
I hold him and mourn that I don’t know this already, that I can only sense but can’t feel his need of me, cannot determine the moment he becomes assuaged. And I want to become a part of him and make him a part of me, and I think about how the therapist says I am so bereft of self that I suck lifeblood from other people, gulping in their excitement and pain. “Don’t you see that I have enough of my own,” I ask her silently.
I ask God, “Don’t you see that I am full of this bleeding and am unwilling to sacrifice myself to you, to be nailed up on some cross of your or my own making? And don’t you see that I know I have already chopped the wood for it and sanded the planks and am trying to stop myself?” And maybe it is a failure of will, and maybe that explains the exhaustion, but I’m exhausted with the exhaustion and what I could use now, please God, please Freud, is a good joke or two.
And if I must I will make it myself.
I’ve got the plans; I’ve got the sheetrock.