September 29, 2004
I'd only opened my eyes a slit, maybe between laying still and rolling over, and there it was: an enormous, round, and very bright white light. Were we being inspected? Was this an old-fashioned robbery? Was someone spying on me? (Does Malarone make you paranoid?) I sat straight up, my heart pounding, and fumbled for my glasses.
And there it was. Over the dozing rooftops of my street, making a guest appearance in my window for a fleeting moment, was the moon. The Harvest Moon. Enormous, still, and perfect. As if out of a movie, thin clouds moved past it in a gauzy, languid dance.
Perhaps I was relieved that we weren't being burgled, or inspected, but the sight was an incredible comfort. When I slouched back underneath my covers, the moonglow lay across the bedspread like an extra blanket.
It is Harvest Moon--erev Sukkot--the season when we celebrate Nature's cornucopia underneath a makeshift hut, usually with apples and decorations hanging from the tree branches that constitute a roof. The purpose of such a roof is to let the starlight through while eating in the sukkah at night: one should always be thankful for nature's abundance, for the light of the starts, for the light of the moon.
I pulled the covers tightly back towards my shoulders, imagining the moonlight was an extra blanket, and dozed, comforted, back to sleep.
September 17, 2004
With my brother's celebrated marriage to his wife, Staci, came a sweep of changes in our family, the most notable being the change in our membership from our Modern Orthodox temple to Staci's Reform temple. After all, you know the adage about a family who prays together: so it goes for Jews, too.
The change in membership was also a drastic change in our religious affiliation, since orthodoxy and the Reform movement are on opposite sides of the Judaic spectrum. Aaron (my brother) and I were raised in the shul in which my parents were married. Our family isn't Orthodox--barely Conservative--but we'd formed a love/loathe relationship with our temple's idiosyncrasies--the ridiculous "fancy-shmancy" (my father's expression) hats women wore to high holy day services, the pious men who wouldn't exchange a glance or a hello but would pray with their entire bodies, the zealousness of our Rabbi's voice in delivering a commentary on the week's Torah portion. Both my brother and I were bar/bat mitzvahed there. We went to nursery school there, attended Hebrew school there, played hide and seek in the bridal dressing room, ran amok when services got too boring, and made funny faces at each other over the mechitzah (a partition to separate men and women).
When we were too old for all that, we became familiar with the spaces that the mechitzah separated us into: Aaron's seat was next to my father's, which, when he was living, was next to my grandfather's. They sat towards the back of the room, in front of the cantatorial bimah, so that in craning our heads towards whomever was reading or singing Torah, we'd get a good glimpse at what the menfolk of our family were up to. (Usually, it was not much more than praying, or shaking hands with other men adorned in talises and tzizit. But my favorite was catching all three of them sleeping through a sermon, mouths agape.) Since my paternal side of the family are of the priviledged Semitic tribe of Cohanim, my brother and father were two of the handful of men in our temple allowed to duchen, a holy ritual that no congregant, man or woman, is allowed to behold while it occurs. (Think Indiana Jones and the opening of the Holy Ark; I'd always been under the impression that our faces would melt off if we stole a glance. Once, when I had the bravery to peek, I saw my brother and father, chanting a tuneless prayer, their heads and shoulders covered by enormous talises, their arms and hands raised upwards, like men pretending to be ghosts. My face didn't melt off, but it was certainly a haunting sight.)
The womens' seats in our shul were slightly raised, and set upon either side of the mens' seats, facing each other; but our spaces were different worlds completely, like two hemispheres abutting a sea of heads. Babies were passed around. Mints were passed around. Whispers were passed, too: I think I spent an equal amount of time gabbing (known as "kibbitzing") with other women around my seat, or checking out who was wearing what, as meditating and praying. But integral to my maturation in that temple was listening to other women's conversations about people we knew--who was dating, who was engaged, who was going to college, who wasn't, who was cheating on whom, who was ill, who wasn't supporting his family well enough; who was pregnant, ill, unhappy, overjoyed, fulfilled, making a living, making a difference. It was an unsuspecting and indispensable way to become acquainted with my community-at-large. I knew secrets about folks I wasn't supposed to know.
When I was older, whispers of this-and-that came my way; and while I was too old to care for gossip, I enjoyed being a part of the hum of women's voices that marked a sacred space within a sacred space. I overheard recipes that had been passed from mother to mother, from family to family (depending on who was talking, one would come to know who preferred the "fluffy" from the "bullet" matzoh ball). I learned how women empathize and sympathize with each other. I watched women from different families hold hands, missing departed relatives, while our cantor belted out heart-wrenching, ancient prayers in his tenor. Sometimes, I'd feel someone play with my hair or put a hand on my shoulder before I knew who it was.
When Aaron and Staci married, our family "moved" to a different--Reform--temple, the one in which Staci had been raised. Here, the andocentric world vanished: my father's primordial, Cohanic tradition of duchening wasn't necessary, because it wasn't part of a Reformed service. Only a few women wore hats at all, and those who did so wore them more for fashion than reverence (and there wasn't a fancy-shmancy among them). As if sitting together weren't odd enough (though finally, I could elbow my brother awake in the middle of an interminable sermon), the Rosh Hashanah service was held not in the temple, but in our Jewish Community Center, in order to accomodate the flurry of non-practicing/traditional/guilt-ridden congregants. Our seats were so tightly packed that I barely had room to stand straight up. My brother and I kept looking at each other throughout the service--which was half in English (not a phenomenon normally found in Orthodox temples). A piano accompanied the female cantor, which was lovely, but quite strange to our old-fashioned ears. "It's like church, kind of," said my brother. Staci elbowed him from the other side.
There'd be no gossiping here, no recipes passed. Sigh. I was beginning to wonder how I'd get any meditating done without securing the fortitude of the life-cycle around me. Then it dawned on me: this was a Reform service. All were welcomed here. No Conservative prejudices present to point out, down to the scripted, Aramaic letter, how un-kosher our 21st-century lives are. In a Reform temple, (almost) anything goes.
"Show me the lesbians," I mouthed to my brother.
"What?!" He giggled, incredulously.
"Where are they?" I was resolute. On the most sacred day of the Jewish year, I was looking for dish. I wanted to see a new kind of womens' space here that I could never see in my own temple: the same-sex couple. I wanted to see a fortress of strong women like the ones in my old shul; but all I could see were heads. Everyone here was, quite literally, on the same level.
Aaron shrugged and rolled his eyes. "Gimme a break," he said. "We've only been here a year."
After enduring a pointless sermon and a less-than-inspiring New Year's service, we all went home for our favorite Rosh Hashana pasttime: the long afternoon nap. Then it was on to Staci's parents' home for dinner.
Thousands of years of Rosh Hashana tradition--about 5.000 years-- has resulted in some hefty Jewish Soul Food. And Donna, Staci's mom, made a feast that would make any ancestor proud: gefilte fish, ("fluffy") matzoh ball soup, brisket, turkey, potatoes, salads, and a host of desserts (including Donna's babka), not to mention some lovely coffee. All 19 of us came hungry, dipped our apples into honey for a sweet new year, and ate ourselves into stupors. It wasn't until most people had left that I'd found the womens' space that had been missing all day: Donna's kitchen. While Donna's husband and my dad talked in the living room, Donna, my mom, our friend Pearl, Staci, Staci's sister-in-law Karen, Karen's mom Sheila, and myself cleared, washed, and dried dishes, found matching tupperware sets, argued over what leftovers went home with whom, exchanged dishtowels, cleaned up messes.
It was an exquisite dance set to the music of gossip, recipes, empathizing, support, laughing, and love. In this small space far away from any temple, the sanctity of this domestic sphere, the kitchen, tradtionally a women's sphere, remains for me preserved. Both of the traditional womens' spaces--behind the mechitzah and in the kitchen--have, in modern times, come under the scrutiny of the feminist eye. But I concluded this year that the company of women, whether in the temple or the home, necessitates its own space, and that space will naturally forge itself anew on the high holy days. Why? Because it probably always has.
I'll never look at a kitchen the same way again.
September 13, 2004
When I arrived at her apartment at 1 pm today, she was still in her nightgown; her teeth weren't even in yet. She hadn't felt like 'making herself up' yet, and was feeling too weak to really care much. I wasn't in the mood to care much either, so I didn't press it. When my mother stopped by a little later, she was too upset to press it. I took out some tunafish and tomatoes while mom bit her lip. She didn't stay for lunch.
I made some hot coffee and prepared lunch while Bubbe sat quietly. It was only instant coffee, but it was comforting. "I love coffee," I muttered.
"You know how I love my coffee!" Bubbe offered. "You get it from me."
Thus began a lunchtime conversation marked by Bubbe's recalling and my listening. Before long, I grabbed a notepad to start writing down everything I was certain to forget.
Bubbe, who was known in her hometown (Lodz, Poland) as Sala or Salcha, is the eldest of five (her four siblings perished in concentration camps, though we're not sure where). She was a tomboy and had bundles of energy for mischief and playing. In the summers, her parents would send her away from the bustling metropolis of Lodz to the countryside, to her grandparents. There, she'd help her grandfather pick cherries, plums, and cauliflower. According to Bubbe, any fruit or vegetable you could imagine grew in the Polish countryside.
Sometimes, Sala was sent to visit her father's sister, Adja (Adsha), in Lovitch, where she ran a grocery store. "Then," Bubbe says, "coffee was sold in long strips, called 'segoria'. These long, round, black, aromatic strips could be cut and sold per block, and put into boiling pots with strainers to make "beautiful cups of coffee." Bubbe recalled that freshly ground coffee was also sold as Bona Kaffe.
"We had fresh milk, right behind our apartment building in Lodz," Bubbe says. She wants me to know that even though Lodz was every bit as cosmopolitan and mod as New York City, that the delights of the country were also available. "Only cows--no other animals," Bubbe thinks; she can't remember what the name of the dairy stand was. Her father would rise early, grab a "big pot," have a litre or two of milk squeezed fresh, pay for it, and bring it back to the apartment to be boiled. It would last for a couple of days. "Oh!" Bubbe remembers: "We kids used to make kef'yeh--like a big milkshake! So delicious." I asked her what the other ingredients were. "Nothing else," Bubbe says. "Just milk, I think."
"On Fridays, I used to get into the most trouble. I don't know why Fridays! But I liked to play a lot, like the boys. I had a [hula hoop] with a stick I liked, and once I boom! put the stick right through my throat, like this. My father had to take me in a taxi to the hospital, but shabbos [the sabbath] was coming, and we weren't allowed to drive, you know." Bubbe laughs. "My father would say, 'Sala! Why do you make such trouble on Shabbos?' But then he'd give me a kiss. He loved me."
For the sabbath, Bubbe tells me that the family would eat in a special room in the apartment, but her mother would cover every table in the house with a tablecloth and a lit candelabra. "'You shouldn't shame a table,' my mother would say. Everything should be nice and good for shabbos."
I surveyed the table on which we were eating our tuna and tomato sandwiches. Our plates were empty, napkins used, coffee finished. It was time for me to go, but I have a feeling I know where I'll be come lunchtime these days. Stay tuned for more Bubbe Meises (Bubbe stories).
Fourteen years, three cities, two degrees, eleven addresses, several adventures (and misadventures) and a handful of lifelong friends later, I'm officially residing back at 90 Danforth, the house in which I grew up. (Not for long, though: my parents have decided to move to another house, about six miles away from this one.) I suspected that this move would be tumultuous: I've left a job I love, friends I love, a city I love, and a baseball outfit I love.
It's not so easy to explain why I willingly up-and-moved home, a move I've been both resisting and contemplating for the better part of a year.
Suffice it to say this: it was time for a Change. (Also worth mentioning is the excruciating cost of living in Boston.)
And so, with a hearty send-off and several strong embraces to last me a while, I packed up the big yellow truck and carted my fourteen years of stuff back here, with my good friend John graciously driving my car behind me.
I imagined that upon pulling up to my driveway, I'd feel some awful heart-pangs, or at least enough anguish to make me want to turn the truck around and head back East on I90. All summer, I'd been waking up at night in small fits: What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Really, the seismic fear of losing my identity--and my confidence--in a place where not many people can say they know me well was the most harrowing. Would I lose that part of myself I've come to be proud of? Would I be able to sustain my focus, be challenged, be creative in this "new" old place?
Sitting in my driveway, I cut the truck's motor and shut off the headlights. The warm light of our kitchen cast a familiar shadow on the stone path outside the front door. I could see the silhouette of my mother talking on the phone, laughing. And something in the cool night air reminded me of a Halloween night, several years ago, when after a long evening of circumambulating the neighborhood, all I wanted to do was to come home to her and my father.
My family had been awaiting my homecoming since I'd told them about my decision, in early Spring. Mom had chicken soup ready on the stove.
So far, this feels right. I checked-in with myself. John eventually pulled into my driveway, and with everyone home safe, fed, and relaxed, John and I went out to see his daughter, who's studying down the road at St. John Fischer College.
The next day, after unloading my stuff from truck to storage space, John and I picked up his daughter for a mini-sightseeing excursion around Rochester. I'd hoped to impress them, though there isn't too much--or so I can remember--about this city that really takes one's breath away, especially if the audience is teenaged. Off we went, towards my favorite parts of the city: Upper Monroe Avenue, Park Ave., Alexander, and East Avenue; the George Eastman House and Eastman Theater behind us, I thought I'd take my tourists to High Falls.
Despite the signs indicating the way to High Falls, I couldn't find them. They're falls, for crying out loud! Shouldn't they stand out? But the roads of downtown Rochester are elusive, even to this native. And then it occurred to me: I am just as much a tourist here as my passengers.
After a half an hour of zig-zagging, U-turning, and apologizing, we headed for a much larger body of water that, I'd hoped, would be harder to miss: Lake Ontario. Made famous by local band Foreigner (quit your eye-rolling--they're Rochester juke-box heroes), Lake Avenue is one of the few see-and-be-seen venues we Western New Yorkers have. And I found it--by guessing and memory, and importantly, asking several people directions at stoplights.
We visited Abbots' Famous Custard Stand (a Rochester institution since 1906), walked the Pier--which I hadn't done for years. Maybe it was the handful of other tourists walking alongside us, but I suddenly felt a deep sense of rootedness: this was the shore my mother and her friends visited on hot summer days; this was where my grandparents used to picnic with their fellow, newly-emigrated friends and their children. This was, maybe, where I was meant to be for a while.
So far, coming home isn't too terrible. My grandmother is already making plans for our usual 'dinner & a movie' dates; my sister-in-law is planning to show me around some good nature trails, and my oldest friend, who still lives here, can't wait to have me over to pick up our old-fashioned, late-night chat tradition. I've already made plans to volunteer with a local film festival and help family prepare a dish for Rosh Hashana this week.
Could it be that Coming Home is meant to secure--not strip--the identity I've come to hone in the time I was away?
September 08, 2004
On went the Turkish tunes. We isolated our hips and rib cages; learned how to 'figure 8' up and down, side to side, and with our shoulders and chests; how to 'travel,' how to 'frame' using the beautiful silken veils, and. . .how to cling-cling the zills. None of this is as easy as it might look. Just when I thought I'd lost myself in the dance, I noticed that I was really salsa dancing. Whoops.
Alhena was gorgeous and mezmerizing while helping us to keep time, move, breathe, and feel beautiful all at once. I laughed a lot, and worked hard. (My hips actually hurt today.) Hoorah for grassroots fundraising!
September 06, 2004
I'll just keep looking for Johnny Damon on his roaring Hog, mane a'flying, sending him good vibes. . .
From Cambridge, from Back Bay, from an airplane, from the Top of the Hub in the Pru, from Charlestown: I've now seen my city glimmer from all sides.
Pamela whipped together a fun time: grilled burgers and dogs, delicious wine, and the fixin's for s'mores atop her apartment in Chucktown. As the sun went down, we froze, and our Queen of Cool brought some sweaters, blankets, and fleeces for us. We hovered around the grill, laughing and making smores, with the still, statuesque city skyline winking our way.
September 04, 2004
After a most scrumptious dinner at Monsoon, Richard leads my car to Walden Pond. It is pitch dark out. We park in the small employees' lot next to the gift shop.
Richard tells me to be very quiet; while the everyone in Concord knows him as Thoreau, the Concord police wouldn't have any idea that he's an actual employee of the town, that he's here at the Pond nearly every day, educating tourists and local school groups about Thoreau while in full costume, full character.
We tiptoe across the street to the entrance of the park; we link arms and try to muffle our footsteps. I have to stifle my giggles into his shirt. We find our way along the beach, where the moon illumines the tops of the trees, which reflects on the perfect, still pond.
"I'm not the best swimmer," Richard says. I comfort him when I tell him that I can tread water for a half hour and took an ALS course in 11th grade--and think I remember how to help a drowning victim. He timidly tiptoes into the water; I walk straight in. The air is cooler than the water, and I try not to yawp from happiness. I swim towards the center of the pond, leaving Richard far behind. Head raised, I starspin, around and around, getting myself dizzy, laughing to myself. How wonderous this night: how lucky I am, skinny dipping with Thoreau, a final goodbye to the place I love so well.
During an educators' seminar at the Thoreau Institute in 2000, I realized that Walden Pond is my outdoor "home." I've been documenting my visits there ever since. Walden is where I go when I'm confused, when I need to think, when I need to write, when I need to take stock. I've gone to Walden for four years, annually, to perform taschlich, a ritual associated with the Jewish New Year. I've taken so many out-of-town friends to the Pond, so many of my junior and senior classes, so many friends, that I believe I could map out the shoreline with my eyes closed.
The smell of white pines; the soft, fallen needles in October, the brilliant yellow leaves; blueberry and huckleberry plants nestled between the trees; the sounds of the wind through the brush, of my students, laughing with each other, splashing each other; smelling the broken stems of the black birch and the broken pepsin leaves; the electric-green beetles and dragonflies; the sun, how it breaks on the water. The missing has already started when I pitch my camping chair into the shallow end of the pond's western edge, and revisit some of my journal entries from years past:
July 18, 2000: "...during a morning hike on the blue path, rounding my way up and around Pine Hill, a deer came bounding in front of me, and, hearing my gasp (and probably, my pounding heart, too), stopped in its tracks. We had a long, long staring match. In the three or four eternal minutes of our simultaneous blinking, it occurred to me that I am going to have to come back: not only to the Walden Woods, but to what Thoreau calls 'The Wild." I realize the connotation is heavy--in the context of our landscape and its evolution--but for me, the wilderness will be anything these hiking boots have not yet traversed. . .walking here. . .makes me feel alive again. There is a hue to my cheeks and a shine in my eye I thought were only effects of being in love with a human. I have fallen in love with nature."
May 9, 2001: "Senior students are dispersed for another half hour; ...observing aspects of the pond to make connections between Nature and Humanity. Another Perfect Day. . . .katydids are chirping, humming playfully around my neck, five elegant, savvy fish at my feet. . ."
September 29, 2003: ". . .It is challenging to be a Good Person when I'm tired--and challenges of all kinds (to remain committed to good teaching practices, to exercise and stay healthy, to help people wherever/whenever possible, to be kind rather than judgemental, [to be] understanding. . .a man is doing the backstroke across the pond, and the Q remains: when will my own celebration take place? . . .la dee da/ do the backstroke/be the leaf in the water, says Lao Tse." . . .[the rabbi] mentioned that the word "tzedakah" means "righteousness," and in its common context, "charity," I hope to think often of this word and act accordingly."
August 31, 2004: "I remember bringing Stephie here in '97. She was disappointed by the tourists. We swam in our clothes and laughed, laughed. Itchy wet asses on the way home (then it was Waltham). '97 was about becoming: I was just new to Boston and wanting to be Something Good. What a rich life I have. In 2004, I have memories of this beautiful place that are inextricably linked to life-long friends, my students and a career I've loved, and a ritual that centers me. I looked back at last year's goal setting, and thrilled to be able to check-off ONE [goal] that is to "go around the world." I depart. . .in October. . .who knows what more."
When I packed up my camping chair and put the journal away, the sun was just beginning to set behind the pines. I signed the guestbook in Thoreau's re-created house near the parking lot. Under comments, I wrote, "Goodbye, Walden!" And, for what I thought was the last time, shuffled out of the one-room cottage, past the statue, and to my car. I want to think that the leaves were rattling goodbye to me, too.
I found Kendall Dudley, by accident, in the CCAE Fall classes brochure. Knowing full well I wouldn't be hanging around Boston long enough to enjoy a full-on course, I perused anyhow, longingly eyeing classes I've always wanted to take, like "Street Photography" and "Argentine Tango for Beginners." To further torment myself, I turned to the writing section and found this:
"CAPTURING THE MOMENT: By looking at the present and seeing what we choose to record through writing and art, we learn what is vital in us and where to direct our energies. Fast-paced journal writing exercises will spawn images that, when deepened through line and color, will suggest new words and images. As this work accumulates, you will see patterns, strengths and directions. For all levels of writing and art experience, the emphasis here is on process, experimentation and self-expression. Bring drawing materials, watercolors or other non-toxic media. Limited to 16."
My eyes bugged out. This was the course I needed to spearhead my travel journals!--and it was offered on Rosh Hashana (drat!)--AND, offered well after I'd have left Boston (double drat!). I called CCAE immediately, and they kindly put me in touch with Kendall Dudley, the course instructor.
When I called Kendall, I had no idea how to propose meeting without sounding like a stalker. But Kendall was more than amenable to a meeting: he invited me to his home/office in Lexington, where he keeps a cozy room full of his own journals, travel books, comfy couches, writing and painting implements, leafy plants, a water cooler, and, surprisingly, a dry-erase board. He asked me to bring all of my past journals, a resume, pictures--anything that would give him more an holistic idea of who I am.
Kendall, dressed in a bright, yellow shirt, khakis, and sandals, gestured his ring-clad hands about while he discussed with me how the process of journaling isn't merely about "getting the facts." Through writing about the present, we see into our past: our life IS narrative.
(I'd heard a professor tell me this once, and it's always stayed with me--he'd say, "The story is NOW, Monica! Look for the narrative in your life, and make the connections!")
I grew more excited with each passing moment. Kendall had me on my feet and sketching on the dry erase board before I had time to protest: we looked at layout, about text juxtaposition on image, about fast exercises and written reflection when situation allows one the time to "chill out and think." Kendall showed me some of his own journals: beautifully put-together books of watercolor memories with slyly written notes as accompaniment, and carefully-pasted pieces of papers, notes, and tickets. I was enthralled by the sheer beauty of the craft. I hadn't ever considered journaling as anything beyond writing, and had always been caught up in needing to chronologically document what was going on at any given place and time.
Glancing at the abundance of travel guidebooks on his ceiling-high bookshelves, I asked Kendall if he'd been to India--to which he replied that he had, about seven times. He was excited that I was going, but moreso that I was about to embark on a year of self-exploration. A sabbatical is, after all, a luxury: I will travel, I will work, perhaps, outside of classrooms, I will dip my toes in a lifestyle that is not Workaday Boston.
I told Kendall that not only was I leaving Boston, but upon returning from India, going to live in a home I've never known (my parents are moving from my childhood homestead to a new place, six miles away). "I feel a little homeless," I said, "with all due respect. I know I'll have a roof over my head, but nothing will feel right; I won't know the streets in my hometown any better than Mumbai or Delhi." Kendall laughed. He said, "I can't wait to see your novel when it comes out."
So we talked: about the notion of home, of being placeless. The journal, we concluded, becomes a center: it will bring me back to myself. If identity is inextricable from place, and I am not 'at home' for the duration of the next several months, it will be the writing, the sketching, the collection and recording and reflection that will ground me.
With some suggestions for places to eat in Mumbai, Kendall walked me out to his patio to bid me farewell and bon voyage. (I will certainly be in touch with him, from India and beyond!) But I wasn't yet ready to stop thinking; off I motored, down route 2, to Walden Pond for what I thought would be a final dip.