#ThrowbackThursday — “Tish’a b’Av Thoughts 2013”

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

 

 

 

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For You.

 

“They’re going to hate me.”

 

I laughed at you for that. “Pffft, no, they won’t.”

 

“Oh yes, they will.”

 

Because that’s how it works to you, how it’s always worked — friends of your exes hate you; it’s just how it goes.

 

It’s a good thing we’re not exes, then.

 

Even though “I feel like I should add you to my list of exes,” I said, watching while you self-consciously sorted and folded your laundry, hanging up one shirt at a time in that closet by your bathroom. “Because this feels like a breakup even though we never dated.”

 

“I don’t wanna add you to my list of exes.” You shook out another t-shirt. “That’s basically a list of people who really really hate my guts.”

 

“Fine.” I grinned. “You can put me on a different list.”

 

“You just…kind of exist in your own…separate, special space.” You looked down at the t-shirt you were folding, then turned and tucked it away on a shelf.

 

Yeah. That’s me. And now you too.

 

A friend of mine suggested that the word for it is “fling,” but that doesn’t do it justice in the slightest, doesn’t encompass everything we were, everything we became, everything we can’t be anymore. “Well, then you come up with a better word,” my friend joked.

 

“I don’t need a word. I know what it was. I don’t need a nice neat label for it.”

 

“What was it?”

 

“It was a friendship that we had to end because we both wanted more from it.”

 

“Oh.”

 

There’s no word for it. It’s a lacuna. (I know you know what that means. If you don’t remember, just ask Hank Green to remind you.)

 

A different friend tried to solve the dilemma mathematically —

 

“Say it’s an omega function, where N is your desire to not have kids, and L is the amount you like someone, so if L is less than N—”

 

But it doesn’t work like that. The amount that I like you is not quantifiable. And my desire not to have kids isn’t quantifiable either. They’re both infinities.

 

“Well, if they’re both infinities, then the omega function is useless and I pulled it out for nothing. And the omega function does not like that.”

 

Oh boo hoo, the omega function will have to get over itself.

 

I bet that’s a sentence you’ve never seen in a love letter before.

 

I keep trying to think of a song that captures all of it, but nothing fits anymore. Not even the one I sang you a couple weeks ago. There are lines here and there from lyrics ranging from youtube originals (“We just don’t fit each other’s frequencies”) to country ballads (“I don’t love you any less/But I can’t love you anymore”) to out-of-context Adam Lambert (“Do you know what you got into/Can you handle what I’m about to do/Cuz it’s about to get rough with you”), but none of them are really about everything.

 

Makes me wonder if should write one myself. But I don’t want to write a song about this. I just want to write this.

 

I don’t know if you’re okay with this being posted, honestly. But I need to do this. I need to reduce you to something quantifiable, to just one more Facebook note, one more post. A mental exercise of pulling together various puzzle pieces of two years and transmuting them into art. I can’t just let you exist as this amorphous unquantifiable infinity. You blot things out with music and I blot things out with words. I need you to just be words on a screen. So I hope you can forgive me.

 

I want to write about the things I want to remember. Even I know I need to forget them.

 

I want to remember everything we were before we caught fire and burned out. I need to remember that we were so much more than just how we ended.

 

I want to remember the first time we met, when you were handing out those random surveys for some random class and apologizing right and left for doing it.

 

I want to remember the first time we really hung out, two years ago, seeing the zom-rom-com “Warm Bodies” with our friends, and sitting next to you and knowing you liked me in your quiet, repressed way.

 

I want to remember how you first put my number into your phone as “Essem” because you were a tiny bit tipsy and thought that was funny. (It’s okay; I was sober and I thought so too.)

 

I want to remember immediately establishing that we could not date because of our incompatible goals regarding children, and I want to remember you finally telling me so recently how much you appreciated me being so upfront about it. (“I love how straightforward you are. It’s such a breath of fresh air.”)

 

I want to remember how we fell out of touch, fell back in touch, and stayed in touch, with all those facebook messaging conversations when you were going through your various and sundry crises. Like cologne. Remember cologne and how much you were freaking out about which one to get to impress some girl you barely knew? (And then she dumped you anyway. Classic you. Sorry.)

 

I want to remember how for the longest time I thought you thought I was a narcissist and didn’t like that about me. Turns out you kinda do now. Turns out you kinda think it’s adorable. You kinda think I’m adorable.

 

I want to remember how I came to feel that you were too young for me, too green and lacking experience, that you couldn’t really be the kind of emotional support I needed, so I didn’t think of you “that way.”

 

I want to remember how much of your history, your baggage, and your pain you entrusted me with, and how you said you’ve never regretted it.

 

I want to remember how protective I felt of you, trying to caution you against getting too attached to your newest crushes too fast, because of how badly that always works out for you. Not that our slow burn wound up being that much better.

 

I want to remember all the times I knew all I had to do if I wanted a meal for Shabbos was ask you where you were going, because you were always happy to bring me along or direct me to other viable possibilities. I met so many people because of you; I’m not even sure I can count them all.

 

I want to remember introducing you to my friends, who were always so impressed at my ability to summon a dude to balance the gender ratio at a meal.

 

I want to remember how you were sweet even when you were drunk, like that time when I told you I thought the guy I liked was interested in a friend of mine and not in me, and you were all, “man, that sucks. But hey, you don’t know for sure, maybe he does like you.” (You were right. He did like me.)

 

I want to remember helping you move, how I volunteered to stay by the truck and flirt with anyone to distract them from stealing your stuff, because why yes, I am a narcissist. And I want to remember how you let me be the one to put your bedframe back together after the move because you know how much I love using tools.

 

I want to remember the night when you messaged me when you were coming apart at the seams, and I knew better than to let you go through it alone. I want to remember how when I showed up, you’d wrapped yourself in a blanket on the edge of your bed, fidgeting and twitching, and I remember how I couldn’t find my usual even, logical tone and that everything that left my mouth was vitriolic and furious because I was so pissed at whoever had hurt you like this.

 

I want to remember that time I met a great girl and thought she’d be perfect for you, but then I discovered that she was, alas, already married. Sigh. I don’t think I even mentioned that one to you, but you knew I kept an eye out for you, and you’d thanked me for doing that.

 

I want to remember introducing you to the Vlogbrothers youtube channel, and how you liked Hank more than John, because…well, of course you do.

 

I want to remember all the times we spent marathoning TV shows together, and how comfortable I felt with you, and I didn’t doubt that we’d be friends for long enough to watch the million bazillion things on our lists. I hope you still get to watch them all someday, even though I don’t remember what they all are.

 

I want to remember how you never made me feel like I had to impress you, how 90% of the time we’ve spent together, I’ve worn no makeup and been in sweatshirts and baggy t-shirts and my shapeless automotive school uniform shirt, and you still think I’m pretty.

 

I want to remember the first time after we finished an episode that you actually paused and asked, “So, how are things?” I think it was the first personal conversation we ever had that wasn’t about a crisis, just about you and me and our boring lives.

 

I want to remember how appalled I was when I found out people had stopped setting you up because they thought you and I were dating. I was so horrified at the thought that I might have gotten in the way of you finding your soulmate.

 

I want to remember the first time I let you see me bleed, the first time I truly relinquished my role as the supporter and became the supportee, how you stayed up an hour past midnight texting me even though you were exhausted and had work the next day, trying to help me stop crying.

 

I want to remember how I knew I had to tell you that my feelings for you were changing. I remember how tense I was, but how I knew that if I just talked to you, we would work together to figure out a next step. I knew you wouldn’t just bail.

 

I want to remember how when I started my rambling explanation of how my feelings sometimes do wonky things without my consent, you blurted out, “You still like me, right?” Oh you. Never for a second thinking that the problem was that I liked you too much.

 

I want to remember how when I decided I needed space from you, you gave it without question, and I want to remember how when we got back in touch, you were like, “Gosh, it’s been so long. How long has it been?” It had been ten days. Only ten days.

 

I want to remember how glad I was when we were able to talk about your dating life again without it being painful to me. How I gave you advice and how annoyed I got at all these girls who wouldn’t give you the time of day.

 

I want to remember how I finally broke it open, how after watching an episode where a character gives a big epic speech about choices and regrets, I turned to you and confessed that I wonder if I’ll wind up with regrets about us, and you said you do too, and that really opened the door to us thinking about and admitting how much we want to be with each other.

 

I want to remember how you said you felt so lucky, “because so many guys go after you, and you don’t want them back. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I’ll take it.”

 

I want to remember that time you told me not to come over, because you worried that being around me would just make you feel frustrated about all the things you couldn’t have.

 

I want to remember the last time I came to see you, how part of me knew it was the last time. I kept my eyes glued to the wheels of your swivel chair while I struggled for words, before finally picking up my head, looking you straight in the eye, and just telling you for the first time, “I love you.”

 

I want to remember how I didn’t wash my hair because I thought that being all oily and gross would make it easier for you not to feel tempted to touch me. And you rolled your eyes at how ridiculous I was to think that there is anything I could possibly do that would make you not want to touch me.

 

I want to remember how you had that zit on your face, and I pointed it out because I do that, I point out the elephants in the room to get them out of the way. “Don’t worry, I like you even if you have a zit.” You laughed because it was such an understatement. And then I tried to reassure you by telling you what terrible skin I have, and you looked at my bare hands and forearms in utter confusion, so I specified, “My face, I have terrible skin on my face.” “Oh, sure, your face is terrible. I am so not attracted to your face.” And I laughed because it was such a lie.

 

I want to remember how while those last hours together ticked by, you asked me quietly, “Is it okay that I keep looking at you? I like looking at you.” Of course. Of course it’s okay. And I told you about the first time I thought I noticed you repeatedly looking at me, and how I told myself it was in my head, that I was only seeing what I wanted to see. “I don’t think it was in your head,” you said. “Yeah, I don’t think so either,” I said.

 

I want to remember how when it was all over, you walked me home for the last time, at 3 AM in the rain. And somehow we were just quoting Galaxy Quest back and forth. And laughing.

 

I want to remember us like that.

 

I want to remember

 

I want to remember

 

I want

 

I need to remember all of it. Because the end came so fast that it’s a blur, and it’s so easy to feel like that torrent of feelings that tore us apart wasn’t real. And I can’t let myself believe that I broke us over something that wasn’t even real.

 

You asked me at one point why we keep doing these things to ourselves, getting ourselves into these situations where we just get hurt.

 

I murmured in your ear, “I’m just too much of a masochist. It’s in my name.”

 

It took a second for that joke to land, but when it did, you laughed like I knew you would, a more genuine laugh than I’d heard from you in days. A laugh that trickled out into an “…Oh god.”

 

Oh god, you were gonna miss me.

 

Oh god, I’m gonna miss you.

 

Oh god, I’m so sorry.

 

*

 

“They’re going to hate me.”

 

No, they won’t.

 

I’ll write you into my history, and they’ll see how much you meant to me, and they’ll never hate you.

 

Thank you.

 

blue heart eye crying

 

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On Breakups and Suicide.

I spent most of one lunch period this week coaching a classmate on how to break up with his girlfriend.

Why did I do this? Why didn’t I attempt to use my considerable persuasive powers to mend this five-month relationship and convince him to work it out? Because I am, of course, a horrible, soulless monster who thinks that if your heart isn’t in a relationship anymore, you should end it.

“I just don’t want anybody to hate me, you know?” he said. “To know that I hurt someone that much? That would hurt me to know. I just don’t want to hurt anybody.”

Oh, kiddo. Welcome to the club.

“Sometimes you’re going to hurt people. And they might even hate you for it, and it might not be your fault, but it happens. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

To quote a friend, breaking up is about minimizing pain, not avoiding it.

Because you can’t stay with someone just because you feel bad for them. Or just because you’re afraid of hurting them. Or just because you feel guilty. There are few things more internally destructive than that. And 99% of the time, the other person will be hurt by your emotional check-out, even if you are technically still there.

Suicide, to me, is the ultimate breakup from the ultimate relationship. You’re breaking up with life.

I’m aware that this is an imperfect metaphor, but I think that the emotional experience of living with depression is analogous to the emotional experience of being trapped in a bad relationship. It’s everywhere you go, it colors everything you do, and maybe you just get used to living at a baseline of unhappiness and it stops feeling so bad. Or stops feeling like anything at all.

I am not of the opinion that suicide is always, unequivocally, a bad thing. A sad thing, yes. Painful, tragic, devastating to confront, yes. But bad? I have to confess, I’m fuzzy on that. I see pros and cons. Like, I feel terrible for Robin Williams’ family for their awful loss, but at the same time I feel…almost happy for Robin Williams himself, that he is no longer living with whatever unthinkable internal pain caused him to end his life.

I’m not saying that suicide was the only option or was inevitable. Or that it was even a choice, since depression wrecks your brain chemistry to the point where you arguably are not in full control of your decision-making. But I see responses from various people across the web who call him “selfish” for doing what he did, without acknowledging how selfish it is to demand that he keep living just for you, or for his family.

Nobody owes it to you to keep living. Doesn’t matter if you’re a family member or a friend or whatever you are; nobody owes you their life. No one owes it to you to live solely because you will be hurt by them not. Nobody owes it to you to be your symbol of hope and recovery and strength. People are just people. They are independent of you, and while it may be inevitable that we graft ideals and projections onto the people we admire, it causes a clash of expectations and reality.

There is of course a lot more to say on this topic, and I doubt that what I’ve said here hasn’t been said a million times since Robin Williams’ death. But it’s what I wanted to say, so here it is.