It comes around every year, so I’ll probably repost this every year.
Original post was a Facebook Note from July 16th, 2013.
Tish’a b’Av Thoughts 2013
Tish’a b’Av is not a day of action. There are no extensive Judaic rituals like a seder to conduct or a bundle of plants to wave around or a rickety booth to construct in your backyard.
It’s not a day of prayer, either. There are a few specific prayers, the kinot, that are particular to Tish’a b’Av, but there are nowhere near as many things to say as there are on Yom Kippur, and no one is expected to spend the entire day in the synagogue with a prayerbook.
It’s not a day of atonement. We’re not asking for forgiveness and absolution and a fresh start.
The only way I can think to sum up this day is that it’s a day of, “Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”*
It’s a day of wallowing. You’re ideally not supposed to do anything that will distract you from that, at least for the first half of the day. You’re not supposed to eat, you’re not supposed to watch TV, you’re not supposed to read, I’m not supposed to be writing this. You’re not even supposed to study Torah until after chatzot (midday).
It’s a day of mourning, and a day of regret, and a day of guilt. Very Jewish.
I have never been any good at feeling the things I am supposed to feel. I’m pretty good at doing the things I’m supposed to do, because I can usually come up with my own reasons to do them. But I’m bad at believing what I’m supposed to believe, and feeling what I’m supposed to feel.
Supposedly, God does not command your feelings. I remember in school when we got up to the “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God” verse in the shema, and the teacher raised the question, “How can God command anyone to love him?”
I don’t remember what answer she gave, which means that I must have found it completely unsatisfying, because I remember satisfying answers while unsatisfying ones evaporate from my memory, leaving the questions stronger than ever. (She probably said something like, “Doing all the commandments will lead to love of God, so it’s not a separate commandment, just a natural result” and no, that is not how it works.)
But the fact that this is a question means there’s the idea that God doesn’t command our feelings, only our actions.
But aside from what God technically commands, it’s undeniable that the Jewish calendar has demands on your feelings. Be happy on these days! Be sad on these days! Be introspective! Be celebratory! Be depressed! Be grateful! We have holidays for all of them, sometimes well spread out, sometimes smushed together like a bad mood swing.
Some people have the mental discipline to direct their thoughts and feelings toward all of these at the right times of year, and are able to take advantage of this varied spectrum of emotional experience. Me? Nope. I tend to get bitter and cynical when faced with “BE HAPPY NOW” and feel upbeat when everyone around me starts doing the sad thing.
I’m an emotional contrarian. I’m bad at feelings.
And I’m especially bad at guilt.
Because the fact is that I am a bad Jew, a Jew who doesn’t believe properly, who doesn’t care enough about Jewish things, doesn’t have enough tolerance for people who don’t think like me, and if there is a Messiah, I may very well be one of those people who is preventing him from coming, because I am just not good enough for that, and am bringing the rest of you down with me and my unworthiness. Because we Jews are all a team, and my failure somehow radiates out to impact all of us.
And I could feel guilty about that. I could let it own me, let it crush me, let it weigh on me every minute of every day.
It used to. It used to be this constant horrible presence in my life, berating me, hammering me, until I reached a point where I realized, “Yo, guilt! It’s either you, or me.” And I chose me, and over time, I uprooted and cast out every last shred of guilt I could find.
Guilt is not something I have been able to find a balance for. In order to function, I need it gone. Completely. I understand that guilt in moderation is a healthy thing, ensures that you’re not a sociopath, but I can’t handle it, so I’ve walled it out. I can recognize my mistakes, I can think to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that,” or, “That was wrong,” and I usually do my best to apologize and make it up to the person I’ve wronged, but I can’t feel bad about it anymore, not for more than a second or two, with very rare exceptions. I don’t have any real, sincere regrets. About anything.
I have tremendous respect for people who have a capacity for guilt. I respect people who can feel their mistakes, people who have deep regrets, and live with them every day without letting them take over. Guilt destroys me, and I am frankly too afraid to let any of it back in, because I know what it does to me.
So even on this day of guilt, for better or worse, I sit behind my walls and refuse to feel my wrongness.
*President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing
Like this post? I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you, wonderful reader, that my GoFundMe campaign is still open — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive. The proceeds no longer go toward automotive school tuition, because I have paid off my loan in full, but you can still commission me to write anything you want. You can force me to watch ANYTHING and review it for you. Anything. Real-Housewives-of-Atlanta-kind-of-anything. Hit me with your best shot.
My mother’s gmail account was giving her trouble yesterday, telling her she’s reached her storage quota (which is absurd, because we both have 15 GB of storage and I apparently have 500,000 emails and she has about 25,000, and yet I’ve only used up 50% of my storage quota, but whatever, GOOGLE *shakes fist*) so we went back to her oldest emails and set about the Massive Deletion of 2015 (soon to be a major motion picture), and stumbled across my college application essays from 2008, which I had her forward to me before she deleted them.
I’d been in Israel for the year at the time, so I was sending drafts of the essays across the world to my parents for approval, and for desperate advice on what to cut, because for one of them, I’d written an 800-word colossus for a 500-word max. I never did get it down to 500 words, but fortunately the text box on the application site measured in characters, not words, and I slaughtered those characters like I was George R. R. Martin and got it under the limit. Phew.
I don’t have that character-limited final draft; it wasn’t in the emails we found, and my AOL account from those days has long since sealed me out. But what you have here is the original first draft in all its 800-word glory, with a couple of content revisions borrowed from a second draft. I don’t remember what the topic was, but think generic “what struggles have you overcome and what heartwarming lessons have you learned etc.”
* * *
There’s a lot to write about writing. Most of it’s already been written; in fact, there’s a whole bookshelf full of books about writing books in the Barnes & Noble store ten minutes from my house [Edit from the future: that store no longer exists 😦 ]. Characters, literary theory, viewpoint, plot, setting, novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, read-aloud, Braille — you name it, they’ve got a book on how to do it. Probably more than one. I like to sit in the aisle facing that bookcase when I’m writing, but I’ve never taken a book off the shelf. Why?
Writing is personal. At its best, it is an extension of self; at its most penetrating, it is life experience, given a manifest, accessible form. That can be taught far more effectively through the writing process itself than from a book, no matter how well written or instructive. Writing is personal, and it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.
Lesson #1: “Nothing good comes easy.” Sure, you might catch a few breaks along the way; nobody said it was impossible. Your brother may come home with a flyer from school that advertises a Young Adult Writers Colony for the summer of 2005, guaranteeing publication of any novel completed during the group-centered eight-week program. You may frantically rewrite the first fifteen pages of the novel you started in fifth grade, and then luck out when the program’s organizers like what they see. You may even receive a dizzying stroke of good fortune when illness nearly disqualifies you from the Colony and instead of being sent away, you are set up to work one-on-one with a terrifically insightful volunteer editor, who guides you all the way to the finish. All you have to do then is wait, and the novel is eventually published in an anthology in 2007. Sounds like a piece of cake, no? A published novelist at age seventeen? Where’s the difficulty in that?
Ah, but there’s that other lesson, the one best phrased by the playwright Lillian Hellman: “Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.” All through the years that I was writing in elementary school, all the feedback I got came from my best friends who read as I wrote and always loved every bit of it. My own personal crew of yes-men. Encouraging, yes. Helpful? Not so much. But help came with the program. “I’m thinking ‘plausibility’ here,” my editor, Chris, would often gently say when I proposed an outlandish explanation my friends would have lapped up. He taught me to troubleshoot the issues with the manuscript stemming from a fifth grader’s mindset, and together we ironed out the kinks until the published version could legitimately be called “moderately implausible” instead of “implausibly implausible.”
But that was only the beginning.
Last lesson learned, and learned the hard way: “Life’s not fair.” Neither is publishing. Being published doesn’t mean you’ll be read. Being finished does not mean you’re done. Having “nothing wrong” with a novel is not good enough. It’s just not. After seeing how hard it was to persuade people other than my closest friends to buy an entire anthology just to read my book, I set about trying to land a literary agent who would market my novel individually. I sent query letters to various agents and awaited their replies. This process is inherently unfair: a query letter is essentially your whole novel condensed into one paragraph, and yet that one paragraph should still somehow be indicative of your writing style. If you want to catch an agent’s eye, a completely different skill set from novel-writing is needed, in addition to a lot of luck. Rejections came pouring in — my total may presently be as high as fifty — but a handful of agents were intrigued. This sparked the most intense stage of revision I have yet encountered: six months of scrapping entire sections and rewriting them from scratch, prioritizing, sacrificing, and compromising. There’s a lot of a neat stuff in that old draft, and at least two really good jokes that I know I’ll never get back, but the narrative itself was strengthened and the characters enhanced. However, in the end, the agent whose detailed suggestions had prompted this major overhaul apologetically passed on the project. That hurt. So I suspended agent-hunting for a couple of months, then started anew. Signs from the latest interested agent are good, but there are no guarantees.
My writing has taught me that life should be labeled: “WARNING! Frustration and failure come standard.” I know I have a good book; a professional agent spent six months of her time and free editorial advice on it. The finished product simply wasn’t right for her contacts in the industry at the time. That’s the way it goes. The publishing world contains only a miniscule sample of the outside forces steering the tide in the real world, so I know I’m in for many more disappointments as I grow up. But as long as I stay flexible and don’t expect everything to always be fair and easy, I have the confidence to handle any challenge that comes my way. Bring it on.
* * *
This second essay is a hilarious load of garbage, and I’m not just saying that in hindsight — I knew it was garbage at the time that I wrote it. But it wasn’t entirely my fault, because the topic was garbage: “Imagine yourself graduating from our program, four years from now. How have you grown, what have you gained, etc.”
When I was venting to a friend that I honestly have no idea where I’ll be in 4 years so how could I possibly write this stupid essay, she replied, “I don’t know how to say this, but — don’t be afraid to lie?” Hence the beautiful bs you are about to read.
* * *
To paraphrase Douglas Adams: The world is a mind-bogglingly huge place. It is big and chaotic and, worst of all, there is so much in it. So much to experience, so much to learn, so much culture to absorb, news to track, people to meet, plays to see, books to read, books to write…I remember how I couldn’t wait to get in the thick of it. Fresh from my year in Israel, my identity solidifying by the day, I arrived at Macaulay Honors College ready for anything, and I was not disappointed.
I’ve always known that the best, most insightful writers draw on experience, not simply imagination or cold knowledge. The latter two help, but the deeper the well of experience, the greater and more nuanced the writing becomes. No matter how imaginative or well-read I was as an 18-year-old, there is only so much experience a Queens-dwelling, yeshiva-attending, orthodox rabbi’s daughter can have, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–not all experiences are good ones–but it is limiting.
After four years in a program that exposes me to numerous cultural elements and a widely varied student body, I have been able to broaden my scope, re-awaken forgotten interests, and most vitally, grasp new aspects of topics ranging from theater to archaeology to civil rights. Every piece contributes to my understanding of the world and my strength as a writer, not to mention my growth as a human being.
All I knew for certain upon my arrival was that I wanted to major in Creative Writing. What I would do with it, whether it could be a viable career–I had hopes, but much remained to be seen. Now, four years later, I have complete confidence that I can do whatever I want with my writing, thanks largely to the mind-boggling hugeness of the world, or more specifically, of New York City and the unparalleled access granted to me by the Honors program.
* * *
LOL at that conclusion. Talk about telling colleges what they want to hear regardless of actual factual facts.
Looking back, I know I represented myself as someone who wanted to write for a living, because that sounds good, it sounds focused. It sounds much better than, “eh, who the hell knows.”
I don’t remember if at the time I was still genuinely interested in making a career out of writing, or if I just wanted to get this one novel republished and see what happened. I know I was still writing the sequels at the time and had hopes of finishing the series. But I also knew that a lot of what I’d written was awful and would need to be completely overhauled, and I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t really care THAT much. But I couldn’t actually say that to anyone, because that’s shocking and scandalous makes you sound like a lazy bum who can’t finish what she starts.
People seem to have a tough time understanding why you would do so much of something and then decide you don’t want to do it anymore. But this has now happened to me enough times for me to know that no, doing something a lot is EXACTLY what you need in order to evaluate whether you want to keep doing it. To be able to say, “I know exactly what this entails, and I can do it, but I don’t like it enough, I don’t want it enough, and I don’t believe in it enough to keep subjecting myself to that.”
It’s true of friendships, of careers, of relationships, of hobbies. You aren’t bound forever by what you once wanted. You’re allowed to outgrow it. You’re allowed to let go.
I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you, wonderful reader, that my GoFundMe campaign is still open — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive. The proceeds no longer go toward automotive school tuition, because I have paid off my loan in full, but you can still commission me to write anything you want. You can force me to watch ANYTHING and review it for you. Anything. Real-Housewives-of-Atlanta-kind-of-anything. Hit me with your best shot.
I have missed an inexcusable number of Throwback Thursdays, and I just came across this while sifting through some old posts, and it made me laugh out loud, so I’m posting it here with only the thinnest veneer of a pretext for it, and a run-on sentence intro to boot.
Originally published as a Facebook Note on September 11th, 2012.
Constancy Characters Tavern
My professor said we can do anything we want with our response papers. So I did. You’ve been warned.
Persuasion – Final Response Paper
[Dimly lit tavern. Several small wooden tables in the center of the room. Seated around these are Anne Elliot (Persuasion), Bella Swan (Twilight), Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Jack Bauer (24), Miles Vorkosigan (The Vorkosigan Saga), Ginny Weasley, and Harry Potter (Harry Potter). Buxom tavern wenches swoop periodically between the tables, resupplying drinks.]
ANNE: (finishing up what was clearly a long story) “. . . And that is why one must never waver from one’s first and dearest love. Constancy and loyalty will always be rewarded.”
BELLA: “Oh, totally. When my Edward left me, I was, like, completely depressed, I started doing super dangerous stuff like riding motorcycles and jumping off cliffs — but he only left me to protect me! For my own good! When he saw how much I loved him, he took me back! It was sooooo romantic!”
GINNY: “Ugh, gimme a break. As if your younger self has any idea what’s good for you. If someone’s not interested and treats you badly, MOVE ON.”
ANNE and BELLA: (shocked gasp)
SNAPE: “To be perfectly frank — and when am I ever not? — I have to side with the two ladies on this. My eternal and constant love for Lily Evans is my only redeeming quality. Otherwise I’m a total douchebag.”
HARRY: “Can we not talk about your creepy unrequited crush on my mom when I’m sitting right here?”
ANNE: (with stiff politeness) “And what is your opinion on the matter, Mr. Potter? Do you concur with your wife?”
HARRY: “Uh, yeah! If I’d stayed all hung up on Cho Chang, I’d never have married Ginny, and we all know what a mistake that would have been.” (smiles goofily and nuzzles Ginny’s cheek)
ANNE and BELLA: “Awwwwwww.”
SNAPE: “I’ll just be over here, drowning my sorrows. Don’t mind me.”
JACK BAUER: (leaning over from an adjacent table) “Sorry for butting in, but I’ve gotta agree with the happy couple. I mean, my wife died pretty early on, and yeah, that sucked and I was depressed for a couple years, but then I got a hot new girlfriend. I don’t remember what happened to her, she probably died, but whatever, I got another love interest like practically every season after that. Plus I saved the world a bunch of times. So here’s to moving on!” (Jack, Harry, and Ginny all clunk their mugs together)
MILES: (ducking between Jack and Harry with a winning smile) “Well, I wouldn’t be so cavalier about it, but you certainly have a point. My crush on my childhood sweetheart didn’t work out — she rejected me and married this annoyingly decent fellow — and I had various relationships over the years, but as I matured, I came to better understand my own priorities and what I need from a partner, and wound up marrying a woman who wasn’t even introduced until the tenth book of the series.”
ANNE: “The tenth book? How on earth did you manage? And how could you simply abandon your first love without a fight?”
MILES: (shrugging) “It wasn’t easy. But sometimes you’ve just got to be a grown up.”
ANNE, BELLA, and SNAPE: “Never.”
(A great debt of inspiration is owed to Zeke, creator of the Underused Characters Tavern on Fiveminute.net)
I posted this on Facebook last week, but forgot to post it here. So here it is; sorry for the delay!
Lesser known fact: I’ve been writing characters with PTSD since before I knew what PTSD was.
I’ve just always had one or two characters running around in my novels (which I started writing in 5th grade) with some disastrous tragic past, who are now navigating a world where this is mostly not relevant to their everyday life, but just because it’s not relevant doesn’t mean it’s not always there, capable of snapping to the forefront if they see something, smell something, hear something, taste something. This just seemed to me like a perfectly logical way for a mind to cope with unthinkable amounts of stress and trauma while remaining functional that I had no idea that it was a diagnosable condition, and that some people don’t understand or even believe in things like triggers.
Of course, once I was a worldly 8th or 9th grader, I at some point learned of the existence of PTSD and did some research in the hope of writing my PTSD-afflicted characters in more authentic and realistic ways. But pretty much everything I found aligned just fine with the ways I was already writing the characters, based on the logic of how I perceived a person’s psyche would react to their sorts of situations. I had essentially deduced PTSD and some of the various manifestations of it: triggers, flashbacks, emotional outbursts, self-imposed isolation, frustration and self-loathing at the betrayal of one’s own body and mind, insomnia, insecurity over being perceived as weak because of it, undercurrents of anxiety at being unsure when/how bad the next attack could be, health issues outside of attacks (like high blood pressure), and coping mechanisms.
Lots and lots of coping mechanisms.
I personally did not begin to have anxiety issues until the past few years, and the outright panic attacks didn’t start until a couple of years ago. (I actually have a Facebook note — and post here — about when the first one happened and why, because of course I do.)
I usually don’t think about my own life in terms of coping mechanisms, because I don’t have PTSD/a diagnosed condition, and my anxiety attacks are usually so sporadic that I almost totally forget about them in between. This is not super great, because then when they hit me, every time, it feels like they’ve just come out of nowhere and that I don’t have the tools to deal with them, because I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis.
But after last week’s spate of repeated attacks with barely any respite between them, I couldn’t afford not to develop some tools for myself. Or at least to hone the ones that have lain dormant in the back of my brain. I mean, I think I do use these all the time, but unconsciously, automatically, and I think I need to start employing them in a more deliberate, methodical way, instead of just relying on my brain to kick in with them when I need it to, because clearly my brain is tired of being taken for granted and would appreciate a little jump start (#carjoke).
Years of writing PTSD-riddled characters has left me with a wealth of underutilized coping mechanisms just hanging around back there. I haven’t technically written any fiction in over a year, but over the past decade and a half, I’ve spent countless hours inside the heads of these characters, a headspace where coping mechanisms are second-nature; I’m sure they won’t mind if I borrow a few.
So the idea behind the rest of this post is to compile some kind of list and explanations of various coping mechanisms that I’ve been using since my last panic attack. (It’s been a week and a half, for those keeping score at home; it’s been a fantastic week and a half, actually.) The list is by no means definitive or comprehensive, and of course not every technique is right for every situation. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of flexibility here. Stress and anxiety are many-headed and adaptable monsters, and trying to counter with exclusively the same move over and over again is rarely going to stay effective. You have to set your phaser to a rotating frequency (#StarTrekjoke).
Again, a technical term I only learned about wayyyyy after I’d been utilizing it for years. Basically, the way I cope with my fears is to bulldoze right through them.
I remember during my gap year in Israel before college, one of my classmates had one of those bags with so-called inspirational phrases slathered all over it, but the only phrase I remember was: “Do one thing a day that scares you.” And I started doing that, maybe not once a day, but once in a while, and I learned to think in terms of what scares me, which at that point in time was a lot of things. Like, talking to that teacher. Or approaching that classmate. Or asking that family if they could host me for a meal. Or going into the Chabad house to see what it was like. Scary stuff. Or at least, scary until you’ve done it once or twice. Then it’s easy.
I gradually graduated from tiny little fears to bigger and bigger ones. Distilled thought process: “This scares me. Why does it scare me? Do the reasons include ‘likely to cause bodily harm, financial disaster, or extensive emotional damage’? No? Then DO IT.”
Afraid to tell that really cute guy he’s cute? TELL HIM. Afraid to write that really personal essay? WRITE IT. Afraid to post it online? POST IT. Afraid to tell that guy you really want to date that you really want to date him? TELL HIM. Afraid to let those people see you without makeup? LET THEM. Afraid to perform at that Open Mic? PERFORM AT IT. Afraid to go to that party where you might not know anyone? GO TO IT. Afraid to start a conversation with a stranger on a train? START IT. Afraid to hang out with that person from the internet that you barely know? HANG OUT WITH THEM. Afraid to travel alone and go hostel hopping for two weeks? DO IT. Afraid to let your new boyfriend see your vulnerabilities? LET HIM. Afraid to say hi to Kevin Bacon when you practically bump into him on the street? SAY HI TO KEVIN BACON; IT’S FRIKKING KEVIN BACON.
All of these things — the more you do them, the less scary they become. At least for me. (Kevin Bacon is super nice, tbh.) I can’t tell you that the fear always goes away entirely, because in certain areas, it definitely does not. But if you know you’ve faced a fear in the past and lived, it’s easier to face it again in the present.
People I know have at times referred to me as “fearless.” That is categorically false, of course. I just have a compulsive need to face my fears, conquer them, beat them into submission. Sometimes this is a bad strategy and results in me damaging my mental health by forcing myself into situations that I ought to have walked away from rather than trying to beat. As I’ve noted in the past, a tactical retreat is not cowardice. But it runs counter to my need not to be controlled by my fears, so sometimes I err on the side of recklessness.
But essentially what I’m saying here is that when that horrible empty feeling and subsequent panic attacks made me afraid to go back to work, I instinctively felt that the only viable path open to me was to GO BACK TO WORK.
Identification and Verbal Acknowledgement
One of my greatest talents is my ability to wordify my thoughts. Sometimes this is easier than other times, because honestly sometimes I don’t have thoughts; I just have feelings. Sometimes a feeling will put the whammy on me in the span of a split second — between one bite of my meal and another, I can go from ravenously hungry to losing my appetite completely. It happened a lot last week. I would feel fine and then BAM. The cliched description of it is “that sinking feeling” in your gut, but it’s really more like “that sudden sheer drop off the Cliffs of Insanity feeling” (#PrincessBrideJoke) (#whyamihashtaggingallmyreferences #idontknow #cantstopwontstop)
And because that kind of dramatic loss of appetite and sheer drop feeling is often a precursor to an anxiety attack for me, my immediate reaction when I’m caught unawares is, “Oh god oh god it’s happening again oh god I don’t know what to do what do I do what do I do whatdoIdoWHATDOIDO????” And of course a thought process like THAT is just magnifying the unknowns in the situation, rather than focusing on what I do know. Known quantities are inherently more calming than unknowns. In the opening of the most recent Hunger Games movie, the heroine Katniss Everdeen is shown rocking back and forth, whispering, “Start with what you know. My name is Katniss Everdeen. I survived the Hunger Games,” etc. This is not just handy exposition but a very real way of coping with PTSD, from which Katniss most certainly suffers.
I’ve found it helpful to verbally identify the known factors as specifically as possible. I’ve obviously done this a lot through my writing, but writing is for when I have a chance to sit down and compose eloquent paragraphs of thoughts after having had some time to reflect and ponder and ruminate, which is not the case most of the time. In the moment, my thoughts are scrambled and fragmented, and I need to grasp at all the straws and pull as many of them together as I can. And it helps to whisper it to myself, to say it aloud. For instance:
“I just lost my appetite. I don’t know exactly why. I’m feeling anxious. I’m feeling anxious because I lost my appetite and I don’t know why. And my throat is closing up and it’s getting harder to breathe and swallowing is making me nauseous and I don’t know if I’m going to throw up. But feeling anxious made me lose my appetite in the first place. So all this other stuff is definitely adding to the anxiety, but I’m anxious about something else too.”
And then I have to be honest with myself about what is scaring me at the moment. It may surprise you to hear me say this, but honesty is hard. But I have to be brutally honest with myself; I can’t pretend to be better than my fears, no matter how much I wish I were, because I can never deal with them if I can’t admit them, and my gut knows when I’m lying (and often when other people are lying) and has a violent aversion to it.
“I’m anxious because I don’t feel happy. I don’t know if this job is right for me. Imagining a future of doing this feels suddenly suffocating and I don’t know what I want anymore. And I’m afraid that means that one of my exes was right, that this isn’t for me, and I really really don’t want him to have been right. And I’m afraid that maybe that other friend of mine was right and that the reason I’m unhappy is because I think I’m better than this. And I don’t want to think like that; I don’t want to be that person. I’m afraid that the only jobs that will satisfy me are the really mentally challenging and exhausting and impossible ones, and I’m afraid that I’m scared to try them because I’m afraid to fail. And I’m afraid that succeeding still might not make me happy.”
Admitting that I was unhappy was a hard thing to do, which clearly meant that it was a major key. (Back to exposure therapy: often the more difficult something is, the more you need to face it.) Same thing with acknowledging that walking away might be my best choice, and to forgive myself for it if it was.
“It’s okay to walk away from this. I have a college degree, I have a wide support system, I have money in the bank, I have no debt, I have plenty of time, I have options.”
And what unexpectedly helped me a lot was when I calculated how much I would earn at this job, at this rate of pay and the number of hours I’m willing to work, and it turned out to be only around 11 or 12 thousand dollars a year (post tax), which is clearly not a sustainable rate of pay to cover NYC rent, insurance, cell phone bills, food, potential car payments, retirement funds, etc, and that hammered home for me how very very temporary this is, and how there’s no need to envision a suffocating future when this is obviously not going to be it. So for my first day back at work this week, whenever that chokey sinking feeling started to hit, my mantra was:
“I’m unhappy right now, but that’s okay because this is not forever. I can leave anytime I want.”
(That’s how I tend to get through synagogue services, by the way, by reassuring myself that I can leave whenever I want. And sometimes I do. So far, I haven’t come close to leaving my job early, but knowing that I can makes everything so much easier.)
And that chokey sinking feeling has all but gone away as my mind has begun to internalize how transitory this job is. A fun detour is much more enjoyable than a necessary stepping stone. And maybe eventually I’ll come to enjoy it enough that it will change from a detour back into a stepping stone and I’ll rise through the ranks of this profession. But that’s not something I need to know right now.
Don’t be afraid to fall on your support system — hard. It’s tough to reach out to people. It’s tough to admit that you need help. But if you have a support system, if you have good friends, if you have family who you’re on decent terms with — utilize them. Talk to them. Open up about what you’re going through, even if you’re still struggling to put it all together to make sense of whatever it is you’re feeling.
For me, a lot of people were asking “HOW IS WORK??” and I couldn’t tell them; I just didn’t know how. There was too much and it was too confusing to explain in conversation. But I told most of them, it’s complicated, I have a lot of thoughts, I need to write a post to figure it all out. And anyone who knows me even a little understands that. And once I got that post up, I could send it to any of my friends who asked, and then they’d have a reference point and we could move forward from there into commiseration, support, brainstorming, etc.
It’s just hard to explain it from scratch every single time, but I wanted to be able to seek support; I didn’t want to isolate myself and sink further and further into the quagmire in my own head, because that would just suck and compound the problem.
If telling people scares you, you know what I’m gonna say: DO IT. EXPOSURE THERAPY, KIDDO. If the friends you tell freak out and reject you, they weren’t your friends. GET NEW FRIENDS.
Also: It’s good to get outside perspectives, but you don’t have to listen to everyone’s advice. Some friends are better at being supportive than others. You probably have a sense of which of your friends are best at that, and it’s probably best to seek the bulk of your support from them. You probably also know some people who are well meaning but frequently give terrible advice, or advice that simply doesn’t apply to you, and it’s fine to ignore those people and not ask for their opinions. And some people who are just plain awful and toxic and you should avoid them at these times at all costs. And some people are wild cards; you don’t know how they’ll react — they might give great advice, or they might have no frakking clue and say all the wrong things, so they probably shouldn’t be your first line of defense. But people can surprise you and sometimes great support can come from places you least expect if you take a chance on it. (Parents are often wild cards, I think. But I was in bad enough shape last week that I actually reached out to them, and it worked out.)
Lastly, cast a wide net for support. Don’t dump everything on one or two people. They can be the best people ever, but you can have the strongest trampoline ever and if the Hulk drops out of the sky in stiletto heels and lands on it at full combat drop speed, it’s gonna puncture.
Spread the weight around if you can. Talk to a core group of people you trust rather than just a couple of individuals. Don’t be so exclusive that the other person feels like they’re your sole source of support and that if they drop the ball, whatever happens to you will be their responsibility. It’ll be better for you and it will be better for them if you have multiple support beams and layers in your trampoline.
When I’m in the midst of a full-on attack, the previous things on this list are not necessarily going to help me. When my body just flat-out decides to rebel with almost no warning, I can’t just think myself out of it; that’s not how it works. I have to find ways to distract myself so that my body can have the time it needs to reboot itself, or at least calm its systems or metabolic rate or whatever it is that’s going haywire.
(By the way, you might not always be able to tell that I’ve had an attack or am fending off another one just by looking at me; I’m pretty good at hiding it when that’s happening, if I want to. Unless I am puking. That’s hard to hide. But like, this picture was taken less than an hour after I threw up and probably at least 12 hours before I was physically able to eat again:
So yeah. Just thought I’d mention that.)
I need things to pull me out of my own head when I’m in a bad place, otherwise my thoughts will just burrow further into my brain and spiral down, down, down. I need to find things that stimulate my senses, but without triggering me further — for example, a strong smell is more likely to make me throw up than distract me, but a radio broadcast of a baseball game will form a protective cushion around my brain and stop me from spiralling.
It sometimes helps to leave the lights on at night because in the dark it’s just me and my thoughts. It sometimes helps to walk around outside and look at everything and distract myself with motion and sound. It sometimes helps to stay as still as possible and focus on my breathing. It sometimes helps to watch TV; it sometimes helps to read. It sometimes helps to talk to other people; it sometimes helps to be away from everything and just sleep. It’s extremely variable, and I have to pay attention to my body’s reactions and see what’s working at that moment and what isn’t.
This is very similar to the next item on my list, which is…
Positive Triggers (Soothers) (Not to be confused with a particular type of allomancer from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy)
I don’t have a lot of these, unfortunately. Finding them means being on the lookout, paying extremely close attention to anything that calms me, even in the most microscopic ways. I doubt I’ll ever find something that positively triggers me as dramatically as anything that can negatively trigger me, but little pieces of calm in a storm have their uses too.
For example, a kid I babysit for recently gave me yet another Livestrong bracelet. It’s multicolored, and one of the colors is what my brain dubs cyan, because I know obscure colors like that. It’s a kind of pastel turquoise, I guess. And I noticed that for the split second that my eyes glanced over that cyan patch of silicon, sandwiched between the yellow and the fusia on the band, I felt just the tiniest bit calmer, more relaxed. Apparently very small doses of cyan is soothing to me. Large doses seem to lose their impact, but tiny ones, well, they seem to help. It’s the only bracelet I wear at work now, so that in the constant dusty grey of the repair shop I can glance at it for a second for a miniscule pick-me-up.
Other things that soothe me: Petting my giant stuffed tiger or cuddling with it. Being in my own bed. Taking off a layer (or more) of my clothes so that my skin can breathe better. Wrapping myself in a blanket or a towel. Entering the mind of a character during a scene I’ve been writing in my head that constitutes a particularly serene moment for him/her. Writing a post about coping mechanisms.
I started putting this in the Soothers section but I’m not sure it really fits there so I gave it its own subheader.
See, I think this second week at work made me realize yet again that the crux of what makes life interesting and worthwhile to me are people and their stories. Let’s face it, the main thing I got out of automotive school was not knowledge of cars. Sure, I got that too, but that feels like small potatoes compared to the vast canvas of human experience that I got a chance to see and learn about by being in that environment.
I think that my first week on the job, I was so intent on being a good little worker that I was all business all the time, just going from task to task to task, so that by the end of each day, I had a lot of tasks accomplished, but no stories to tell. And to me that felt like a worthless existence. I mean, I can tell you how I changed oil, but that’s an instruction manual, that’s not a story.
This second week, I chilled out a little, didn’t focus so intently on the work to the exclusion of all else, largely because I was working on telling myself that this is not where I’m going to end up, that this is temporary, that my entire life and future does not hinge on my success at this job, so it’s okay to relax a little. I actually sat down and ate my lunch, for example, instead of just skipping it or devouring it in five seconds and heading back to work. I took things slower, I observed more. I paid more attention to the dynamics of the shop and the workers.
I think that because I slowed down and was also less new, the guys in shop started feeling more comfortable chitchatting with me, asking me questions, but mostly giving me their opinions on how things work around here. Everyone has an opinion on everyone else and their style of work, and they’re all willing to tell me about it, not knowing that everyone they’re talking about has been talking to me about them. This guy thinks everyone else is incompetent and phony. That guy thinks the other techs have no finesse and take no pride in their work. This guy thinks one of the bosses is incredibly patient and has never seen him raise his voice in all the years they’ve worked together. That guy tells me that two of the techs constantly bitch and moan about the smell of the paint fumes from the body shop section, but that they’ve miraculously stopped complaining since I’ve been around, because “they don’t want to seem like a lady in front of a lady.” (Oh, casual misogyny, you make the best stories.)
I think my mind is happiest when I am occupied with day to day work, but at the same time piecing together another canvas that no one knows I’m working on. I wouldn’t want that canvas to be my primary focus; I wouldn’t want to approach it like that was my job, like I’m a journalist, asking questions, interviewing, investigating. I’d hate that. I like learning by osmosis, in bits and pieces, not through the things that people want to tell me, but by the things I figure out from experience and observation.
That’s what makes life feel worthwhile to me by the end of the day.
There was actually another subheader on this list, but holy hell this is long so I’m gonna cut it short. If you read all the way to the end, I’m very impressed and I appreciate it a ton. I hope you got something out of it.
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“Find your passion,” they say. “Everyone’s good at something,” they say.
It’s such a fallacy, you know? Just look at it. How on earth would they know if everyone is good at something? Human beings are a random mishmash of genetic traits, and it’s perfectly possible for someone to get the short end of every stick and be good at absolutely nothing. (Not that it would ever be anyone’s business to say to a person, “You are good at absolutely nothing” — it’s nobody’s place to make that judgment call on any individual, but that doesn’t mean that the existence of such an individual is flat-out impossible.)
And even if you’re good at stuff, even if you’re gifted, who’s to say you’re gifted in areas that bring you fulfillment? And who’s to say that everyone has an automatic Fulfillment Button that they just have to find and press? Maybe this person does, and that person doesn’t. There is absolutely no evidence to support it as a universal truth. It just sounds seductively nice.
I happen to be good at many things. But I am not a passionate person when it comes to my interests. I reach a saturation point, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Museums, for instance — I have warned every guy I’ve dated never to take me to a museum just to look at stuff, because I will get so bored, so fast. My saturation point with “looking at stuff on walls and in glass cases” is super low. Guided tour of the museum, hearing people talk about that same stuff, having a conversation about it — saturation point is still there, but it’s higher.
But not necessarily because it interests me. I just like knowing stuff, just having knowledge, not to do anything useful with it; just to have it, mostly so that I can pull it out and seem somewhat intelligent and worldly, rather than the utterly boring person that I actually am. I don’t like having to work to collect this knowledge, I like having it handed to me in accessible formats, which for me include conversations, not articles or plaques on museum walls. See, if the subject matter actually interested me, I’m sure those last two mediums wouldn’t seem so godawful dull to me. But so little subject matter actually interests me. I get bored so easily.
I remember asking myself (and maybe my friends) in high school: “Do we like certain subjects because we’re good at them, or do we get good at certain subjects because we like them?” My conclusion all these years later is that it varies from person to person and subject to subject, and that for me personally, since I am good at almost everything, but I don’t like everything, a simple cause-effect relationship between aptitude and liking can’t be the only thing at play there. But I’ve never been able to figure out what makes me like things and what doesn’t.
I got a job at an auto repair shop and I’ve gone to work there for the past three days.
I’ve also had three panic attacks in the past three days, which is a first for me.
I wish I could say the job and the panic attacks are unconnected, but that is very much not the case. But it might not be for the reasons you’d expect.
The job is great. It’s exactly what I wanted. I get to take things apart, I get to put them back together, I get to use tools, I have guidance and supervision so there’s very little pressure, and all the other (male, of course) mechanics have been perfectly nice and supportive and helpful. And I enjoy being there, and I enjoy doing the work. It’s basically the perfect job — if you’d have told me any time in the past year or so that this is the kind of work I would be doing, ratcheting out bolts, changing oil, taking out hoses and fans and entire radiators to replace them, I would have said that was just about the best thing ever.
It’s everything I thought I wanted, but I don’t feel the way I thought I’d feel about it.
What I mean is, yes, I finish the work day feeling good, feeling like I accomplished something. And that lasts for about an hour.
Then the further I get from the work that I did, the worse I feel. The emptier I feel. The more dissatisfied. I look back on the day and try to feel like I was productive, and I can’t. I feel like I wasted my time, like I should have been doing something else, only I don’t know what. And I feel like I don’t want to go back.
I don’t know why I feel that way about it; I just know that I do.
And that’s when the anxiety/panic attacks hit, every day like clockwork, because it’s really jarring to get everything you thought you wanted and feel that unsatisfied with it. I’ve done plenty of jobs in the past that weren’t necessarily the most soul-nourishing or fulfilling things, but that was okay, because they were just interim placeholders — summer jobs, internships, freelance gigs — not something that I had worked toward and thought I really wanted. And I kind of feel like I’d prefer to go back to doing some sort of interim placeholder job that I know from the outset is unfulfilling, rather than doing something that I thought would be fulfilling but somehow isn’t.
I don’t really know what to do. I’ve been trying to reevaluate my options, because the anxiety attacks have been severe, physically debilitating. I’m talking throwing up, can’t sleep, can’t eat, throat muscles constricting so I can barely breathe, etc. Mental anxiety is unpleasant, but I can deal with it. Physical manifestations, though, I cannot. I’ve discovered a fairly decent new coping mechanism wherein I lie very still under the covers in my bed with my stuffed tiger and turn the game on on the radio so that the voices there make it impossible for me to hear my own thoughts. But that is clearly not a long term solution.
I’ve been pushing off trying therapy for a long time because it’s expensive, but my mom and I are finally looking at some options for me, and we’ll see how that goes.
I’ve been trying to look at the job itself and figure out what would make it more satisfying — is the problem that I rarely interact with any customers so I don’t feel the positive impact that my work is having? Is it because I haven’t gotten to use my own tools that much because everyone is letting me use their (much better and more versatile) tools? Is it because I’m told what to do rather than getting a chance to figure out the diagnosis for myself?
But I have a gut instinct that it’s not any of those things, really. That I could make an effort to have all those things be part of the job and still not be satisfied. It’s not the job; it’s me.
And I worry that I’m just wired without a Fulfillment Button, so no matter how much I look I won’t find it; that I can set goals and reach them and get everything I want, but maybe I’m just never going to be happy.
I know that plenty of people switch careers and career paths many times over the course of their lives, and that a lot of them have invested a heck of a lot more time and money than I have, so if that is what I end up doing, it doesn’t mean I failed, it doesn’t mean any of this was a mistake, or that I’m not special or a worthwhile human being just because this didn’t pan out. But starting over is never easy.
In one of the books (Mirror Dance) of my favorite sci-fi series (The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold), a major character suffers a traumatic injury and gets amnesia. Because Bujold is a brilliant writer and not a hack, this isn’t just some tropey plot device; it becomes a reflection on the nature of identity. During his attempts to reconstruct his identity, this character at one point feels like he’s doing it by process of elimination, trying to learn everything else in the universe in the hopes that whatever small, person-shaped hole is left at the end will be him. That’s what starting over feels like to me — daunting and lonely and a crap-ton of work.
And I know there are a lot of people who’ve supported me, emotionally and financially, throughout this whole endeavor, and I hate to let you down. But I also know that ultimately, it’s my life, and my opinion is what matters here, not yours.
So, for the people who’ve been asking, “HOW IS THE NEW JOB???” — the answer is: I don’t know. I’m going to give it a little more time; I know it’s only been three days and any job is an adjustment, none more so than the first one. But if this pattern/emotional loop of “good work day, seeping dissatisfaction, debilitating panic attack” persists, I may look elsewhere and begin my quarter-life crisis anew.
Can hardly believe it’s been almost a year since I wrote this.
Originally posted as a Facebook note on April 23rd, 2014.
On Family (A Confession)
On the last day of Passover this year, I read a book called Wonder. It centers around a ten-year-old kid named August “Auggie” Pullman who has facial anomalies/deformities that are so extreme that almost no one (other than his dog) is able to meet him and not recoil in horror. And he’s starting fifth grade in a prep school for the first time after being homeschooled by his very loving parents all his life.
Sure, Auggie’s story is interesting and all, thought-provoking about superficiality and how-would-you-feel-if-this-was-you and WHY-ARE-KIDS-SO-MEAN and so on, but (and in hindsight this is kind of “duh”) I connected much more with the brief section of the book written from the point of view of his older sister, Via. She uncomplainingly takes a backseat to August, understanding full well that he and his medical, surgical, and social integration issues are more important than whatever run-of-the-mill problems she will ever deal with. And then came this passage:
On my last day in Montauk, Grans and I had watched the sunset on the beach. We had taken a blanket to sit on, but it had gotten chilly, so we wrapped it around us and cuddled and talked until there wasn’t even a sliver of sun left over the ocean. And then Grans told me she had a secret to tell me: she loved me more than anyone else in the world.
“Even August?” I had asked.
She smiled and stroked my hair, like she was thinking about what to say. “I love Auggie very, very much,” she said softly. I can still remember her Portuguese accent, the way she rolled her r’s. “But he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you. Okay, menina querida? I want you to know that you are number one for me. You are my . . .” She looked out at the ocean and spread her hands out, like she was trying to smooth out the waves, “You are my everything. You understand me, Via? Tu es meu tudo.”
I understood her. And I knew why she said it was a secret. Grandmothers aren’t supposed to have favorites. Everyone knows that. But after she died, I held on to that secret and let it cover me like a blanket.
Listen, I’ve read and reread John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a tragic love story about kids dying of cancer, and it’s never made me cry. Choked up a little, maybe, but that’s all.
This passage just destroyed me. I had to literally put the book down because wiping my eyes with one hand wasn’t helping because the tears just kept coming. I had to bury my face in my arm and let them soak into the sleeve. I wanted to just keep crying until I had no tears left because how did I not know how badly I’ve always wished someone would say something like that to me?? — but I couldn’t, because I was sitting on the couch in the living room during a Passover lunch, and about 15 feet away was a table full of 14 people, a combination of family and guests, and emotional meltdowns are just not done in these situations. So I pulled it together.
Because that’s me, and that’s Via. We get that other things come first, and we’ve internalized it to the point where hearing someone say “No, you come first” is just incredible, in the sense of “not credible” — not true, not real, not possible.
If you asked me: “What’s the best thing about being part of a big family?” I would not be able to tell you.
Or even if you asked me: “What’s one good thing about being part of a big family?” I would still draw a blank.
If you pressed me for something, anything, I’d probably eventually come up with, “No matter what you do, there’s probably always someone else around to distract your parents from being mad at you for too long.”
But that’s kind of the crux of it, isn’t it. That the best thing I can say about big families is that you constantly get lost in the shuffle? That’s not the best thing. It’s not even a good thing. But it’s the only thing I can think of off the top of my head that’s different about having a big family vs. having a small family or a close-knit group of friends.
One of my boyfriends, after meeting my parents, said to me quietly, “Your parents are amazing. But it seems like they’re always so busy; I feel like they probably could never quite give you the attention you needed.”
I defended them, but he was right, of course. My boyfriends are sharp like that.
It’s not that my parents play favorites. It’s not that anyone kid gets all the attention over the others, although I’ve heard various siblings whine about how “HE/SHE always gets this but I never do.” I’ve never felt like I’ve played second fiddle to any one particular sibling. It’s just that we all play second fiddle to the family as a whole. To the other 8 people in it. We all occasionally have our moments to shine, but nobody ever gets to be the lead, and you know that no matter what you do, good or bad, you will be forgotten by the next day or at most the next week. This is probably why I have never been obsessed with being remembered forever or of somehow achieving immortality through my actions or my writing — being part of a big family is the quickest way to learn that all glory is temporary. Which is probably a good life lesson to process early, but still, it, well, it sucks.
The truth is that in a family with seven kids (and two parents, and for six years a sick grandmother who lived with us), when it comes to attention, you have two options: Compete or Retreat.
You can demand attention in three ways: 1) by acting out, 2) by being spectacular, or 3) by getting sick. (I totally understand Munchausen’s, by the way, because the only time any of us are ever truly prioritized over the others is when we are sick. Like hospital and/or medical testing level sick, or mentally/emotionally therapy level sick.) I didn’t like doing (1) on purpose because it seemed babyish and also would get me yelled at. (3) happened all by itself and I never faked being sick just for attention, because I hated being seen as vulnerable. So that left (2) Being Spectacular, and I probably did that the most of those three choices: brought home pristine report cards; wrote a novel in high school; received glowing praise from almost all the teachers I’ve ever had, in every subject from English to History to Talmud to Gym.
And of course, if the only time anyone is ever looking at you is when you’re spectacular, that becomes very much tied to your self-worth, because you know that if you ever slip and stop being spectacular, no one will give a damn about you anymore. Or so the internal logic goes.
But for the most part, I didn’t want to compete for the attention. I wanted to imagine myself as better than that. I also didn’t want my parents looking at me too closely or asking me anything too personal, because what if they ever wanted to talk to me about God, or religion, or even *gasp* what boy I had a crush on? Worst nightmare, amirite?
In a big family, the kids who can find ways to amuse themselves, be self-motivated, and appear to outsiders to be mostly self-sufficient, are the ones who get the least attention. If you are having some kind of internal crisis and you don’t want anyone to know, the best place to hide is in a big family. So I sort of disappeared, popping up every now and then when I got sick, when I did amazingly well on a test or a paper, when I got stories published, when I got depressed, when I got scholarships, when I had a boyfriend, when I graduated from something, etc, and the rest of the time I stayed mostly out of the way. And I think the rest of my siblings did and do the same thing because fortunately none of us are “problem children” and we’re all fairly healthy and capable and self-sufficient in our various different ways.
Resources like time, energy, and money, are limited in large families, and they have to get distributed in a way that best serves the family, and my parents do the best they can. Every kid is always going to have something that is going to require a little more investment than it does for the other kids — my medical bills, for instance. Also my bras probably cost more than any of my sisters’ because that’s just how anatomy and pricing work together in glorious harmony. And because my acne was so bad in my early teens, my mother took me to Macy’s and had the saleslady teach me some basics about makeup. And when my dad found out that I liked Mr Goodbar chocolate bars, he bought me a giant one, apropos of nothing. And of course there’s the fact that even though they’re not very comfortable with where I am religiously, they never pick fights with me about it or try to fix me.
They’re great parents. They do so many things for each of us. They try so hard. But that doesn’t change the fact that on a daily basis or a weekly basis, it is simply not humanly possible to make enough time for each of seven children, and none of us wants to be the ungrateful one, or the demanding one, or the problem child, and so we all retreat. I retreat. I put the family first. I help out more than any of the other kids. I go to lots of family gatherings even when I’d seriously rather not. I calculate expenses and I tell my parents not to spend money on things for me that I don’t need. My idea of an expensive dress is one that costs more than $20.
But does part of me resent the fact that I constantly tell my parents not to spend extra money on me, that I saved them thousands of dollars by getting a full merit scholarship to college, and yet the beneficiaries of that are my younger siblings, who get that money toward their college tuition while I’m going to have to pay on my own for that automotive technician training program I’ve been eying? Yeah, I resent it. Of course I do. I understand it, I understand prioritization, I understand that they earned that money and are obviously entitled to spend it how they choose, I understand that Pratt charges an arm and a leg and probably your opposable thumb too, and I understand how whiny and bratty my resentment is, but yeah, it’s tough to swallow sometimes. But that’s family. And I know that if I ever really needed something, they’d redistribute resources this way for me. But 6 out of 7 times, I’m going to be the one who gives a little, and not the one who gets.
My novels and stories are populated with characters who often serve as a catharsis for all sorts of issues, and only after reading that passage in Wonder did I realize that this was one of them. I created characters who were only children, so that their parents would shower them with all the attention I never got. I created characters who came from families whose parents were even more overextended than mine, or parents who were outright abusive, so that whatever buried feelings of neglect I had about my family could be painted onto them. I even wrote both of those extremes into the same family once — a pair of twins whose mother favored and pampered one and cruelly neglected the other. But I never wrote a character like Via, with parents who try so hard and do the best they can but somehow it’s just never quite been enough. That would have been too close to the truth. I wanted Via to have her own story, her own book, not one centered around Auggie. But of course, she doesn’t.
People still ask me fairly frequently why I don’t particularly want to have children — “But don’t you want a family??” — and I answer them that I’ve just never wanted kids. Not in my wiring. And yes, maybe something is odd about me biologically or evolutionarily that’s responsible for the fact that I have never wanted to reproduce, but it also probably has to do with the fact that I’ve never seen family as this pure good, as this lofty ideal. It’s just a way of living, with its pros and cons like every other way of living, and to me the tradeoffs have just never really felt worth it.
And of course, not reproducing doesn’t mean I won’t have a family. I’ve got one. I can’t get rid of it.
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I’ve been neglecting these Throwback Thursday posts, because I’ve been super busy since returning from Israel — I’ve been babysitting a lot, raking in the cash; I took a trip last week to tag along at Harvard Law School with a friend, which served only to reaffirm my career choices because ick, law school; and of course, Passover is coming.
Here’s my handy guide to this insanity, originally posted as a facebook note last year, April 17th 2014. It features a super long intro which you can feel free to skip to get to the Passovery stuff.
Thoughts on Passover, About Passover
I haven’t written any notes recently, not since February, apparently. I could say I’ve been busy but that’s not really the reason. Reasons are:
1) I’m up to the hundredth note, which, while it is a thoroughly arbitrary number, obviously carries this huge pressure to make it special, to write something brilliant and substantial to mark this momentous occasion. Which of course means that whatever I think of writing is going to fall into the (also thoroughly arbitrary) category of Not Good Enough.
2) I’ve recently been through another breakup, and contrary to popular opinion, I am not an open book with my online presence, and I almost never post anything about my relationships without the consent of the fellow relationshipee. (Aside: it occurs to me in this moment that “former fellow relationshipee” sounds so much better than “ex.” Maybe I’ll call them FFRs from now on. Or not.) And perfectly understandably, he would prefer that I not blab my thoughts about us all over the interwebs. Which I of course respect, but so much of what my brain wants to write about loops back to the relationship and what I learned from it, ergo — writer’s block. Well, poster’s block. There’s plenty written, but it is not for public consumption.
3) I’ve been trying to come up with a way to write about things about me that I haven’t written about before, things that somehow you don’t or can’t get a feel for from reading my notes. Who I really am in human form, not in text form. How I trip over my words sometimes when I talk, how my voice is deeper than what I consider feminine, how I pick at my scabs and chew my nails, how sometimes I have nothing to say and get away with just a knowing smile, how I can be a lot warmer and more approachable than it may seem from my notes but not always truly empathetic, how needy and fragile and frightened I can get, how detached and unemotional I can get, how sometimes I just chatter to fill the silence, how I forget how deeply anxious relationships make me until I’m in one again, how lazy and unproductive I can be. But I’m not talented enough to capture these imperfections in writing, because as soon as I put them into words, like I’ve done in the past with depression and with insecurity and with loneliness and with music being an emotional trigger, they sound…strong. They sound authoritative. They sound articulate and well-thought out. Which is precisely what they are not. And so I could agonize and try to figure out once and for all how to solve that paradox and do it right, but because I am lazy, that might mean no more notes for like 20 years. And we can’t have that.
So to get around all of these, and to get over that 100 Note hump instead of letting it loom larger and larger until it’s insurmountable, I’m going to write about something totally different: Passover. Heretofore referred to by the Hebrew name of Pesach, because that’s how it is in my head. (Note: all of the following refers to Ashkenazic practices of Pesach. Sephardic practices are very different, but I am not familiar enough with them to write a compare/contrast piece.)
For those of you who don’t know, Pesach is, to borrow a friend’s favorite suffix, crazypants.
This friend also laments the fact that when you see Jewish characters in fiction, the only holiday they usually talk about is Hanukkah, as if that is the big poobah of the Jewish calendar. To that we say, HA. Hanukkah is one of the least important Jewish holidays from a religious standpoint, since it was instituted purely by the rabbis and not by the Torah itself, and also requires relatively little action, both during the holiday and in preparation for it. Basically, you gotta buy candles or oil and dust off your menorah (which you probably got for your bar or bat mitzvah, or else you can get a cheap one from the internet or your local bodega or whatever) and be home around sundown to light it. And if you get home later than sundown, okay, you light it then. Different customs may require that you don’t do anything more strenuous than reading a book for about 30 minutes after lighting the candles. Very intense.
Pesach…whooooo boy. Where do I even start.
Well, there’s the fact that if you live in America, the first two days and the last two days of Pesach’s eight days are, unlike any days of Hanukkah, capital-H Holiday days, which I’m using here to mean that they are basically two-day Sabbaths in the middle of the week. No electricity, no driving, no public transportation, no writing with pen/pencil and paper, no igniting fires (alas), no sewing, no talking on the phone, no texting, no internet. (Fun fact: Josh Malina, the actor, once tweeted, “Good Shabbos!” and when asked what that meant, he explained, “It’s Hebrew for ‘I don’t have access to google.’ ” High fives, Josh.)
Capital-H Holidays are different from the actual Sabbath in a couple of ways, the major one being that you are technically allowed to cook on Holidays for what is immediately needed. Although since you are still not allowed to ignite a fire, there are obviously limits on what kind of cooking you can do, and therefore most people who are planning to be at home and eating all their own food for Holiday meals have to do a metric boatload of cooking and baking beforehand. You do not want to know how many quiches and kugels and casseroles and lasagnas we (read: mostly my mom) have made in the past few weeks. And that’s not counting the desserts —brownies and blondies and cookies galore.
And THAT’S not counting the fact that Pesach has its own dietary requirements. As in, you’re not allowed to eat almost anything you normally eat. Or anything that was in close contact with anything you normally eat. The technical prohibition is against chametz, i.e. leavened food, but for practical purposes (since what is leavened food anyway) chametzincludes everything EXCEPT water, raw fruits, vegetables, and items that have been officially certified on their packaging as Kosher for Passover, or kasher l’pesach. You basically need to completely restock your fridge and pantry for this holiday and cook everything with flour substitutes such as matza meal and potato starch. Also, you have to boil, cover, or temporarily replace all your dishes, pots, pans, silverware, countertops, table tops, and anything else that may have been used for chametz. Plus you must clean every nook and cranny of your house to find any other possible chametz that might be there. Lurking. Waiting to pounce.
I like to think of it as the ultimate holiday for OCD, sanctioned and encouraged by Jewish law. On the eve of the Holiday, you even get to burn the chametz that you didn’t manage to get rid of. Partay!
Lots of people avoid all this by going away for Pesach. They go to visit family who have turned their houses upside down, thereby sparing themselves the necessity of doing it to their own homes. Or they go to a hotel, which is sparkling clean already and serves them their Kosher for Passover food.
My family has never gone away for Pesach. This is probably due to a) more family in one house for 8 days? No thank you, b) a family of nine in a hotel for 8 days? Pfft, ain’t nobody got money for dat, and, probably most importantly, c) my dad is the rabbi of a local congregation and the rabbi MUST be available on Pesach to answer questions regarding Jewish law on a holiday that is this completely neurotic and overwrought, and as I said before, for at least 4 of 8 days, phone calls and internet are not allowed, so he must be available for face-to-face consultation. Also to give sermons, which he is very good at since naturally he takes after me.
Additionally, the congregational rabbi must be around very close to the beginning of the holiday for another reason — he is the congregants’ representative to sell all the chametzthat was not able to be cleaned/eaten/burned/flushed down the toilet/fed to pets/hidden in gifts given to “friends”/etc. This means that in the week or so leading up to Pesach (and, let’s be real, at midnight on the last possible day), people come to our house, meet with my dad, fill out a form delineating the value and location of said chametz, exchange an object of a certain minimum value (e.g. they hand a pen back and forth), and thus my father is authorized, as is traditional, to go to a gathering in Riverdale with the rest of the New York rabbis who hold all the forms from all their congregants and sell their chametzto a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach. (There are of course stricter opinions that say this is not allowed, but we will ignore those for the time being.)
I have to admit that I find the whole selling-chametz-to-a-non-Jew to be, well…kind of hilarious, to be honest. The basic way it’s done is that the non-Jew (who is a lovely Christian gentleman who used to live locally and now comes in every year specially for the sale, which is incredibly sweet in itself) pays about a penny or two upfront, with the agreement that he will pay the rest of the untold millions of dollars the day after Pesach, or the sale will be voided. And even though this is clearly a charade and everyone involved knows it, there are apparently six different ways that the rabbis ensure that the sale is solid and legally binding, even though it will be voided in a week. And when I was there with my dad one year, in the room with like 50 rabbis, the meeting kicked off with a check on the exact value of gold or silver or something on the stock market or whatever that morning, to make sure that the pennies being paid upfront are of enough value to bind the sale. The whole affair is compulsively neurotic in that adorably Jewish way.
Lastly, of course, is the tradition that most people have heard of if they’ve heard anything about Pesach: the seder, or sedarim in plural, since in America, we have two of them, on the first two Holiday nights. You can probably Wikipedia it and get more information about the technicalities of seder procedure than I can possibly give you (four cups of wine, dipping of parsley into saltwater, recitation of the Haggadah, festive meal,singing of incredibly repetitive Hebrew and Aramaic songs, et al), but what it probably won’t tell you is that since a seder is a family or communal get-together, no two sedarim are alike, just like no two Thanksgiving dinners are alike, even though most of us Orthodox Jew types are reading the story of the Exodus from the same Haggadah.
A seder can be huge (we host our synagogue’s seder every year on the first night and this one had close to 50 people in attendance) or not terribly large (a friend of my was bemoaning the fact that his sedarim were going to have only his parents, brother, and grandmother, so he’d have to be very present and talkative and unable to slink off unnoticed). Our home seder often serves as a mini communal seder, topping out at 16 to 18 people, who can range from “fun guests you enjoy having” to “that guy with terrible hygiene who mutters incoherently to himself half the time and spends the rest interrupting people’s conversations to complain that his sister refuses to host him anymore and he can’t understand why.” Win some, lose some. In ancient times, it was typical to invite as many people as possible to your seder because the korban pesach, i.e. the Passover Sacrifice, i.e. an entire roast lamb, was required to be eaten before the dawn of the next morning; leftovers had to be burned. And while the base text that we read from theHaggadah is fairly standardized, people are free to, nay, encouraged to expound and elaborate and offer up additional thoughts, possible lessons learned, and questions about the story and the rituals of the seder. A common answer given for “Why do we do X Random Seder Ritual?” is “So that the children will ask.” It is a holiday of questions, although the answers may range from the satisfying to the creative to the ridiculous.
Independently of one another, my 13-year-old little sister and my 21-year-old little brother have already said to me this holiday, “You know, I really don’t like Pesach,” as if this is a surprising revelation. It’s really not. I obviously find many aspects of it amusing, but I can’t necessarily claim to like it. I’m sure there are people in the universe who like stressful cooking and compulsive cleaning and having strangely unbalanced guests at their table and having to read huge chunks of Hebrew text before getting to the actual meal and having to eat obscene amounts of charred-cardboard-tasting matza and not being able to eat normal food and stammering through neverending songs in foreign languages, but I don’t think it’s all that scandalous or presumptuous to say that most of us, y’know, don’t.
This holiday is nuts. It’s over-the-top and designed to drive anyone bonkers.
It is also clearly designed, in the way that it has evolved over the centuries, to force members of families and communities to interact with each other, forging and reinforcing connections between them. The preparation for Pesach is a massive undertaking, and would not get done in my house if everyone didn’t pitch in, at least a little bit. We band together against our common enemy: Pesach. And even if you don’t have a huge family, turning everything over from chametz-tik to kosher for Pesach isn’t always something you can do alone; this year I was hired by a family friend to help her lug boxes down from her attic and restock the kitchen. It forces people to ask for help that they might not otherwise ask for, and for people to provide that help because we get it, because we are all at the mercy of this nutty holiday and can’t in good conscience make it even harder for someone else.
And the evolution of the system of selling chametz, in addition to creating a situation where rabbis of various communities have a forum in which they are able to get together once a year (no other holiday has such a thing built into it), also forces people to have face-time with their community rabbi. Depending on your rabbi and your comfort level, this can be a fate worse than death or it can be kind of nice. The old joke is “What’s the difference between a rabbi and a therapist? Therapist costs money.” And many achametz-selling meeting has taken a turn for the therapeutic, I can tell you that. I found out this year that you can sell your chametz online, and I can’t help feeling like that kind of misses the whole point.
Pesach is supposed to be a time where we celebrate our freedom, how we were Exodused from Egypt. But I see Pesach as having more in common with the slavery we were freed from than the freedom we’re supposedly celebrating. It’s kind of a holiday of endurance, not celebration. In essence, in its present incarnation, I see Pesach as a trial by fire that we have to go through every year with our families and our communities, and hopefully come out stronger on the other side, and THAT’S when the enjoyment of our freedom can kick in. We are reenacting the Exodus, people! Freedom awaits at the end; you just have to survive long enough!
Although of course, there is also the fact that absolutely nothing in American law prohibits any of this crazypants holiday. We can be as weird and bizarre as we want and our government does not care one whit. That is freedom, folks. Freedom to be complete whackjobs and fruitcakes and never having to fear for one minute that anyone will stop you. Enjoy that. Savor it.
Chag Sameach, everyone.
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