RSS Feed

What’s Next?

            There are so many trainings advertised on Facebook, for online teaching and social work, and I keep thinking I should sign up for all of them, but I don’t want to, and I feel guilty about it. I want to work on my own writing, but my brain can’t shift out of work mode, or job search mode, or Rachel-isn’t-trying-hard-enough mode. It doesn’t help that I’ve been hit by another wave of inflammation and exhaustion and can’t stay awake long enough to finish a thought.

I’m expecting stay-at-home rules to last longer in New York than elsewhere, especially in the areas closest to Manhattan, like Long Island, where I live. Even when we start to open up a little bit, schools will still be closed, and crowds will still be forbidden. I keep hearing that we’re supposed to get tested, but I don’t know if that includes me, or if I’d need a prescription from my doctor, or an appointment, or specific symptoms. I’ve been trying to figure out Governor Cuomo’s system of regions and parameters and how that relates to what’s happening in other states, but it’s not computing.

            I’m really not looking forward to wearing masks and gloves in the heat of the summer, or the inevitable power outages when everyone is at home on Zoom and using their air conditioners all day. And I’m afraid that my doctors will decide to reopen their offices soon. I don’t want to go to the dentist. I don’t want to go to the dermatologist. I don’t want to go to the cardiologist or the oral pathologist or the general practitioner for tests. Skipping non-essential doctor visits for the past two months has been one of the perks of the shutdown for me. Maybe I can hide under the couch with Cricket when they start to call.

“No room.”

            We finally ordered take out for the first time in two months (for Mother’s Day), and I had to put on my mask and gloves and walk around the corner to the Italian place, which has remained open all along. They were all set up for social distancing, with a table at the door to keep customers outside, and everyone on staff wearing gloves and masks. But there was a lot of staff, and I was preoccupied with details, like the hole in one man’s glove, and the workers brushing shoulders behind the counter. I forgot to get the receipt as I took the bag of food and ran away. It was such a relief to get back home and into my pajamas again.

            Usually, for Mother’s Day, we would have gone to a gardening store to pick out Mom’s new plants for the season, but with the cold spell, and the expected crowds of Mother’s Day shoppers, we delayed the trip. Mom threatened to race out to the gardening store as soon as the weather improved, but, Thank God, she didn’t do it. I keep picturing huge globs of coronavirus rolling down the street, like a bowling ball looking for pins to knock down, and I don’t want Mom knocked down.

            One bright spot is that my big Paw Paw tree (the lone survivor, at thirteen years of age) has started to blossom. We probably won’t have fruit this year, because you need two trees for cross pollination, and the gardener has been lackadaisical about replacing the tree he cut down. He ignored Mom’s suggestions for where to buy a sapling, maybe because he assumes all of his suppliers are awash in young Paw Paw trees. If he ever follows through on his promise to replace the tree he killed, chances are high that he will mistake a Papaya for a Paw Paw, or just fill the space with whatever fruit tree he can buy off the back of a truck. But in the meantime, my tree is leafing and flowering, and that makes me happy.

Paw Paw flowers

We’ve been having a lot of zoomed Ritual Committee meetings at my synagogue recently, to discuss what we’re going to do for the High Holidays, in mid-September. Even if we are allowed to go back to the synagogue building by then, will we really be ready to stuff hundreds of people into the sanctuary at one time? Will we go to services in protective equipment and sit six feet apart? Could we have services outdoors? In a tent? A really, really big tent?

            In the meantime, the choir is preparing to sing a few the songs from home, in case singing in person remains impossible. I did my first video this week, listening to the piano and the Cantor on earphones while singing to the computer screen. It took a lot of willpower not to look down at the music, but Mom insisted that I had to look up, and smile.

“Smile like this, Mommy!”

            I’m taking each next step, but I still don’t feel like I’m back on track, or managing my life very well. It’s not that I want to get a haircut, or go to the beach or the mall; I just want to go to a supermarket with full shelves. And I really want to stop feeling like I’m forgetting something important. Did I lock the car? Did I leave a sock in the dryer? Did I touch my face?!!!!!

            Actually, I think what needs to come next for me is rest, so that I can begin to approach the next set of challenges with some energy and motivation, instead of dragging myself along like an English bulldog forced to walk around the block. I really need a nap; or twelve.

“Bed’s taken. Too bad.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Zooming

Teaching synagogue school classes on Zoom reminds me of the terror of my early weeks of teaching last September, as if I’m balancing on a thin rope five hundred feet in the air. It took months for that feeling to dissipate in the first place, but Zoom brought it right back. Part of the problem is that I have to use Mom’s laptop, instead of my familiar desktop computer, because my computer doesn’t have a camera or microphone. But more of the problem is that I’m afraid I will bore the kids, or run out of things to say, or accidentally end the Zoom when I only mean to share my screen. I hate the idea that I could put so much work into it and still fail.

006

“This again?”

My first attempt to teach a class on Zoom was harrowing – not so much while it was happening, but in the aftermath, when I could hear my own thoughts again. I was asked to do the first Zoom as an experiment, to see if more kids would come to a Zoom than to lessons on the website. Since this Zoom would be for all sixteen kids at once, instead of broken into two classes, I planned it as a get together, give myself time to get used to the technology, and focus on reconnecting with the kids. About half of my students showed up, plus my teacher’s aide, and five dogs, and I lost track of the hand-raising and muting pretty early on, but they all stayed engaged for more than an hour, and shared their stories from the shutdown. So, of course, once the Zoom was over, I spent the next few hours beating myself up for not planning a real lesson, and then wondering why the rest of my students didn’t come and worrying that they must hate me.

For days afterwards I felt like I was having a low grade heart attack, because of the Zoom itself and because now I knew I’d have to do a second one.

062

“Eek!”

In the second Zoom I planned to teach both of my lessons for the week (one Hebrew and one Judaic Studies), which meant I’d have to share my screen, and manage the hand raising and muting, so I asked my teacher’s aide, a brilliant teenage girl otherwise busy writing research papers on game theory, if she could co-host the class with me, and she agreed. Thank God. Teacher’s Aide is the wrong term, actually. We use the Hebrew word Madricha, for her role, and I’ve seen it translated as counselor or guide, so maybe Teacher’s Guide is the best way to describe her.

After some serious outreach by the principal of the Synagogue School (my boss), more of my students came to the second Zoom. We did Show and Tell at the beginning of the session, to give the kids a chance to share objects that had helped them through the shutdown (dogs were a popular theme), and they all participated. But when I tried to start the actual lesson, with a list of Hebrew words on our shared screen, kids started to fill the chat box with “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,………!”  They continued to complain for the rest of the hour, though they still did the work, which made me feel like we were back in our classroom, on familiar ground.

012

“Are you banging on a drum?”

I still felt like there was a rip in the time/space continuum after the second Zoom was over, though. I was pretty sure that the computer’s camera was following me around the living room, critiquing what I ate for lunch, and tsk-ing when I changed back into my pajamas. I got back to work as soon as possible, sending out the next set of emails to my students and their parents, and typing up a schedule for the next Zoom, just in case my boss was watching me somehow, from somewhere. I had to rely on big doses of chocolate and pasta to finally reduce my anxiety level to a more manageable (EEEEEEEK!!!!) level, so that I could take my afternoon nap.

IMG_1414

The third Zoom had big technical difficulties. First, we couldn’t log in for the first fifteen minutes, and then videos refused to play, and words were cut off of various documents. But I stayed calm, strangely enough, and managed emails with the parents and phone calls with my boss, and I even taught everything in my lesson. One of my straggling sheep was clearly unhappy to be back in class, and another one’s father had to keep pushing his rolling chair back to the computer, and even though I’d seen fourteen of my sixteen students I was still worried about the last two. Were they okay? Were their families okay? Did they hate me? Because I thought they liked me! WAAAAAHHH! But then, towards the halfway point of the class, one of my last two sheep straggled in, and smiled at the camera, and laughed at my jokes, and the world felt like a sweeter place.

056

“Did you say sweet?”

Of course, I was still anxious after the third Zoom, worried that I’d forgotten too many details from my lesson plan, and failed to call on all of the students, and maybe I was too strict, or too lenient, or too something else I couldn’t think of yet. I was also wondering where my sixteenth student could possibly be, though a tiny part of me felt like, maybe, I’d accomplished something good.

By the fourth, and final, Zoom in two weeks, the kids had hit their limit of relatively good behavior and started begging to leave early, clamoring for games instead of lessons, and complaining that there was no candy coming through the screen. But, my sixteenth student came to that final Zoom; and we all made it through the lesson plan (with some judicious editing). The kids even let me say goodbye to them, and wish them well.

We still don’t know what will be possible, in terms of large gatherings and classrooms and such, come the fall, so I’m going to have to keep practicing my Zoom skills in case I need to run classes without the help of my genius Teacher’s Guide. And I’ll have to plan for both in-person and Zoom versions of everything, just in case. But, I did it. I survived, and not just the Zooming, but the whole year of teaching synagogue school. I didn’t really think this was something I could do, or something I would enjoy so much. I really, really liked spending time with the kids; I liked getting to know how their minds worked, and figuring out how to teach them and motivate them to learn. I wish we could have ended the year in our classroom, with chocolate chip cookies and art projects and singing and dancing and utter chaos. But maybe that’s something to look forward to next year.

003

Cricket is resting up for next year.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Finally, the Groomer is Essential

 

I was getting very jealous when I started to see other dogs on Facebook posting their after-grooming pictures last week, so we called our groomer, thinking she might have a recorded message letting us know when she might be back in business. Instead, she answered the phone and told us that she had received the okay from the local fire department to re-open, on a limited basis, and she could give us an appointment in a few days. I continued my constant watch on Cricket’s mats, and sneak attacks with the comb and scissors, until Grooming day finally arrived.

013

“I looked fine, Mommy. I liked the way none of the hair on my face could move in the wind.”

004

Ellie, on the other hand, was ready for a trim.

We handed the dogs off to the groomer in her parking lot – me on one side of the fence, wearing my red face mask and blue-alien-skin gloves, and the groomer on her side of the fence. The girls know the groomer well, so they were (mostly) okay about going with her. I, on the other hand, had to go home to a dog-less apartment. The echoing silence was so exhausting that I slept for most of the time they were gone.

The pick-up was basically the same in reverse, tossing the leashes over the fence in exchange for an envelope full of money. I was worried that we’d have to pay double for Cricket, given the state of her hair, but we paid the same price as usual. The girls jumped into the car as if they were fleeing the scene of a crime and then Cricket climbed onto my lap in the passenger seat, and then behind my neck, leaving a cloud of white hair in the air and all over my clothes.

IMG_1543

“Oh, the shame.”

 

Poor little Cricket has had her worst fears realized. The groomer had to shave her really, really close to the skin; she’s not pink, but the film of white hair barely covers her nakedness. Miss Ellie, on the other hand, looks fine. I tried to explain the situation to Cricket – that because Ellie let me brush her hair and cut out her occasional mats, she didn’t have to be shaved down to the nubs. But Cricket couldn’t hear me. It’s possible that she still has hair in her ears, because only the vet has the courage to pull out that stubborn hair and risk murder and mayhem, but more likely Cricket just doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. She has very good selective hearing skills. She can even hear things that aren’t there.

062

“Can you see what they did to me?!!!!!”

Both dogs were starving when they got home, as if they were trying to fill up the empty space where their hair used to be. But then they were exhausted and slept through most of the afternoon and evening, barely noticing my Zoom meetings and only waking up to beg for more food and walks.

007

029

“I could eat.”

To cap off grooming day, we watched a segment of Stephen Colbert’s show where one of his producers let his ten year old son give him a haircut. First, the boy clipped off clumps of his father’s hair with what looked like kitchen shears, and then he moved on to the clippers. The Dad/producer ended up looking like a plucked chicken; kind of like Cricket, though she has slightly more hair left on her head than he did. Unfortunately, I can already see tiny mats trying to form in Cricket’s hair, so maybe she would have been better off if she’d been completely plucked.

I feel better now that Cricket doesn’t have any more mats on her face and belly, clumped with goop and food, breeding who knows what kinds of infections. Cricket, on the other hand, still believes that she was fine the way she was; and she’s sticking to it.

005

“Harrumph, Mommy. Harrumph.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

 

The Fourth Year Dreams

Up until recently, my dreams kept throwing me back into the fourth year of high school, telling me that I still had credits to finish in order to graduate, even though I have three master’s degrees in real life.

The literal truth of the dreams is that, when I went there, my high school had a three year program. It was an Orthodox Jewish high school, and the idea was to graduate us a year early so we’d feel obligated to spend a year in Israel before college. The other literal truth is that I fell apart during my last (third) year of high school, and even though I went to college the next fall (at age sixteen), I was unable to stay there.

Looking back, I think part of the reason for the dreams was wish fulfillment. I wanted to go back to high school and do a fourth year, because I wanted to believe that my collapse in college was caused by not being old enough to handle it. Maybe, I hoped, if I could go back and finish that last year of high school, I would be all better.

067

“Hmm.”

And in those early versions of the dreams, my orthodox Jewish high school had a drama department, and art classes, and a therapist (none of which we had in real life). But the dreams still focused mostly on the anxiety and stress of high school, with all of the social failures, and the tests in math, or physics, or social studies that I was wildly unprepared to take.

The dreams kept going, even as I got older and worked to get better. It was frustrating to keep returning to high school as I slept, because when I was awake I knew how much progress I’d made in therapy, in writing, in self-awareness, and in my overall mental health. But the dreams kept reminding me of all of the things I still couldn’t do. With each year I fell further behind my peers: in relationships, and work, and money, and independence. I never stopped trying to move forward, but for every mile my peers traveled I made it about a foot into the future.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Every step counts, Mommy.”

There’s a theory that if you can work through the issues behind your dreams, then you’ll stop having those dreams, but for a long time I felt like these fourth year dreams were going to haunt me for the rest of my life. And the thing is, along with all of the anxiety and failure and humiliation of the dreams, there was also a sense of possibility; that I could have another chance to learn what I couldn’t learn the first time through.

Gradually, even during the dreams, I was able to remember the work I’d done, and the degrees I’d earned in the real world. And then, after graduating with my Masters’ degree in social work last year, the dreams changed again, and even though I was still back in my fourth year of high school, this time I was surrounded by my former classmates, all at our current ages, and all trying to finish those last few credits. And then, sometime this past fall, around the same time I started teaching synagogue school a few hours a week, my high school best friend appeared in the fourth year dreams with me, despite being married with four children and living in Israel, and it was such a relief to have her there with me, and to feel like we were in this fight together, even if it was just a dream.

IMG_1412

And I started to realize that I’m not alone in this unfinished feeling. When I looked at everyone else’s lives on social media, they seemed to be overachieving and rushing ahead and having a great time, but the dreams were telling me that maybe we each had our own unfinished tasks that we needed to go back and work on. Because we’re all still trying to figure out how to be okay. I started to think that maybe all of those kids I grew up with were having the same fourth year dreams that I kept having, stuck back in those old classrooms while they were sleeping, and maybe that’s why I saw them there so often.

281

“Hmm.”

 

I haven’t had a fourth year dream in a while now, and that seems to be a sign that I’ve passed a marker of some kind, and filled a void that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, other bad dreams fill that space now, with other unresolved issues that need my attention, and they seem to think I need to be hammered over the head on a constant basis so that I won’t forget that there’s more work to be done. And, really, I know that there’s still a mountain of work left to do, but it’s nice to take a moment and celebrate that some of that mountain may have finally been chipped away.

010

“Did you say chips?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Six Weeks into the Apocalypse

 

After the anxiety phase of the shutdown, which I wrote about two weeks ago, I moved into the depression phase. I got really tired, and started to feel hopeless, about everything. The idea of putting on my mask, and gloves, just to go to the supermarket and possibly find out that they had no toilet paper, or paper towels, or mushrooms, or fat free Greek yogurt, overwhelmed me. I stopped arguing with the voices in my head that were telling me I wasn’t doing enough, and just accepted that they were right. And the nightmares continued. Night after night, from the safety of my home, where I have more than enough, I imagined myself lost and lacking in everything.

In my waking life, I did everything I could think of to manage the gradually lowering clouds, and the thinning air, of my emotional world: I watched Steven Colbert, and his dog; I watched Rachel Maddow, and wondered why she didn’t bring her dog to work with her; I watched the news as selectively as possible, and I went to my Zoom events, and worked on my lesson plans, and exercised, and played music, and cuddled with my dogs. But I couldn’t push the grey clouds back; they just kept coming closer and closer, squeezing me into an ever smaller corner of my world.

IMG_1412

I tried to count my blessings, and my successes from the past year, but my brain turned everything into the wrong thing. And, suddenly, all I could focus on was the wasteland of Cricket’s hair; her matted ears had become the measure of my self-worth. No matter what else I might accomplish, the fact that Cricket wouldn’t let me brush out the mats on her ears meant that I was a useless piece of shit, not just as a dog mother but in every possible way.

278

“I look beautiful. I don’t know what you’re kvetching about.”

Ellie, reluctantly, let me clean her eyes, and her tushy, when necessary; and, with very sad eyes and a light grumble in her throat, she even let me comb through the more stubborn mats in her hair. Cricket, on the other hand, got crazy eyes and bared her teeth at me if I even looked at her ears. Cricket tends to see grooming as a war, and a war that she usually wins.

281

“Grumble, grumble, Mommy.”

I tried everything I could think of. I loaded her up on treats before even introducing the comb or the scissors. I tried raising her dose of anti-anxiety meds, and even giving her the Ace pill she takes before a regular grooming visit, but her anger only increased.

IMG_0510

“I won’t back down!”

A few days ago, I finally had the energy to put Cricket into the bathtub, despite my rapidly depleting sense of self, and I was able to remove about twenty-five percent of the mess (fresh clean butt!); and then, during her after-bath-zoomie-tantrum, she wiped her face on every piece of furniture and dislodged even more of the muck, some even under her eyes, where I always worry that she will get an infection from the clumped, wet hair, that absorbs her eye goop.

015

“You cannot take my eye goop!”

But despite every effort, and my increasing attempts at stealth, there’s still so much left to clean and trim, and I have very little confidence that she’ll let me do it.

It’s a sign of my looming depression that I am taking Cricket’s behavior so personally. I’m not in a full depression yet, thank God. Therapy and medication have made it harder for my system to fully shut down, the way it’s done in the past, and I’m doing everything I can think of (diet, exercise, social connections, entertainment, etc) to stay above water; but I can see the cliff coming, and I’m afraid, because once the depression takes over it’s very hard to pull myself back up.

I’m hoping that Cricket reads this essay and, out of pity, allows me to at least trim the hair under her eyes, to help stave off my depression. She’s a very smart dog, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s taught herself how to read; but making a sacrifice to save someone else’s life? That might be expecting too much. Even if that life is mine.

067

“No. Just no.”

Obviously, Cricket doesn’t think her sacrifice is necessary yet, and maybe she’s right. I’m not looking over the edge of the cliff yet, I’m just worried that it might come to that, the longer we stay shut down and unsure of what’s to come. But, really, if Cricket walked up to me and offered her ears for combing, that would be a true sign of the apocalypse. So, maybe I should count my blessings and be grateful that we haven’t crossed that line, yet.

003

“Can you blame me? This is what happens when I let them near my hair!”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Triggered

 

The first sexual abuse memories that came back were from my second abuser, my best friend’s older brother. He was six years older than us, and it seems like the abuse started when I started to sleep over at her house, at around age four, but he had access to us long before that. He boasted a few times that he used to help change our diapers, but that seems unlikely. He abused us in her bedroom, and in the den when we slept on the fold out couch in order to watch TV. He also abused us during the day, in the pool and in the kitchen, when he was left to watch us.

I couldn’t have told you that I was being abused if you’d asked me at the time. The memories dived under the surface as soon as they were created. All I knew was that whenever I saw my best friend’s brother I felt sick to my stomach and frightened, but I wasn’t sure why.

I stopped sleeping over at their house, abruptly, when I was seven or eight years old, after I couldn’t get to sleep one night during our weekly sleepover. I don’t remember going to bed, and I don’t remember the abuse that night, I just remember pacing in my friend’s room and then walking out into the hall and knocking on her parents’ bedroom door and asking to go home. It may have been ten o’clock at night, but to me it felt like three o’clock in the morning. I called home on the phone in the hall, and Mom came to get me, though I don’t actually remember going home. There’s a lot I don’t remember.

This was my best friend’s house. We’d met as infants, when our mothers took us to Mother’s Day Out at the local community center. We did everything together, for years, except that we eventually went to different schools. She went to a Lutheran school and I went to a Jewish school. I brought her with me to junior congregation at my synagogue, and we danced around her living room to a record of Jesus songs for kids.

IMG_1384

“Who’s dancing?”

Looking back, the abuse must have taken a turn that last night, something worse than usual to make me so desperate, but I don’t know what it was. It’s possible that something else woke me up to my fear, or to the idea that I could leave if I wanted to. I don’t know. But I still went over to her house during the day, even though I was starting to be aware that something was wrong. I knew that I felt nauseous each time I saw her brother, and I knew that it seemed ironic (and yes, I knew that word as a kid), that I wasn’t allowed to walk home alone from her house once it got dark, and her brother was sent along to protect me. He liked to carry Nun Chucks. Their parents thought they were keeping me safe from the bad guys by sending him along with me. They never let me walk home alone in the dark, no matter how much I begged.

IMG_0510

“Grr!”

My friend and I grew apart for multiple reasons. We were, as I said, at different schools during the day, and my father became more and more religious, making us keep kosher, so that I couldn’t eat at her house anymore. But the abuse had to have played a role too, though neither one of us talked about it, or seemed to remember that it had happened. There was some sort of secret miasma that sat between us in a way we couldn’t articulate. I went to her eighth birthday party, a sleepover, but I threw up multiple times and had to go home, again in the middle of the night.

It took years to piece those pictures together, though, and to guess how old I was in each one, and how one thing led to another. It’s still like a kaleidoscope, with tiny pieces taped together in incomplete patterns; but the memories I have are vivid, and eventually, when we were older, my friend and I were able to talk about what happened and validate each other’s memories.

290

“Harrumph.”

We’d both experienced amnesia for the abuse. When we talked about it years later, our memories of the abuse were remarkably similar, including the ways we had forgotten about it, but while my memories of being abused always included her sleeping nearby, or being abused as well, she’d blocked out any memory that I was even there.

Flashes of different images came back to me at different times, out of context. I didn’t have words for what he had done to us, sexually, or emotionally, or psychologically. I couldn’t make sense of why he would do those things. I remember these little speeches he gave, telling me to close my eyes and that everything would be fine, telling me that my friend was fine with it so I should be fine with it too, telling me that I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they’d be disappointed in me. My friend was right next to me in her bed, sleeping through his abuse of me, and of her, and I couldn’t make sense of that. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t hear him. I hated how easily she fell asleep.

I remembered hiding in the bathroom one night and holding the door shut, even though it was already locked, and arguing with her father, because I thought he was her brother coming to get me, when he tried to open the door. I remembered standing in their kitchen, with the sun shining on my face, and my underpants down at my ankles. He’d made it into a game, kind of like hide and seek, and I was terrible at hiding. I’m very bad at games in general, but I was also a very slow runner compared to my friend. I remember her leaning out of her hiding place and asking why no one had found her yet. I remember being terrified as her brother counted down, because I couldn’t think of anywhere good to hide.

IMG_0886

“I could have helped you, Mommy.”

It wasn’t until I’d been in therapy for a few months, at age 19, after years of remembering parts of the abuse, that I felt strong enough to confront my friend’s mother with my memories. The family had moved out of the neighborhood and it was a long drive out to see her. By the time we got there I was too scared to get out of the car, so Mom had to talk to her first. That’s when we found out that my friend had already told her what had happened, a year or so earlier, but had only told her about one other little girl who’d been abused, and not about me.

My friend called me in the middle of the night, that night, for the first time in years, to talk about our memories of the abuse. She had no answer for why she hadn’t mentioned me to her parents, when she confronted them with her own memories of the abuse. She said that she just didn’t remember that I’d been there that much. She even named someone else, a boy, as her best friend from that time. It was part of the dissociative response, I guess. That’s the most sense I can make of it. She had told herself that we weren’t as close as I knew we’d been, and that I hadn’t spent as much time at her house as I knew I did. Something about remembering that I was abused too was more than her brain could handle. And even her mother, who could have guessed that I was, at least, a potential victim, had forced herself not to think about the possibility. But in the next sentence, my friend told me that it was my fault that she was so bossy to her friends, because I’d let her get away with that behavior when we were little. She saw me as the template for all of her later friendships, but she couldn’t remember that I’d been at her house constantly, for years, being abused right along with her. No matter how much my therapist tried to explain dissociation to me, I still had a hard time with that.

My friend’s parents made a special trip to see my parents, a few weeks later, and I tried to listen in on their conversation from my bedroom upstairs, but I could only hear the clinking of glasses, and laughter, while I sat in my room, shaking with fear, and anger. The one line I remember from Mom’s description of the conversation later on, was that my friend’s father had said, well, it gave her something to write about, or something to that affect, because I’d given my friend a story I’d written about the abuse, which she then shared with her parents, and her brother.

My father’s response to me, the day after seeing my friend’s parents, was that he was “surprised to find out that the memories were true and not just your fantasy.” This was said with a smile.

IMG_0238

“This is worse than Grr.”

The validation of the sexual abuse by my best friend’s brother was probably the trigger that allowed me to look at the even darker memories I had around my father. I’d been hinting at abuse by him to my therapist, telling her about all kinds of weird things he’d said, about how children under five don’t remember anything, and children under three don’t feel pain. And the way he took me on “dates,” and the way he tried to get between me and my mom, and bribe me with presents, and the way he’d used religion to control me. There were so many things that were off, overtly, about my father and the relationships within the family, but it wasn’t until after the validation of my memories of abuse at my friend’s house that I could even contemplate the other images that kept swirling around in my head.

And even then, it was a long process, with images being pieced together over time, and body memories finally being verbalized, and memories I’d always had being re-examined. I started to recognize that the same way my memories of the abuse at my friend’s house would fade to black, memories of time spent with my father, in the darkroom developing pictures, and in the dark, period, faded to black too.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I was doing one of my language learning apps and the word for “eel” came up in Hebrew, and below it there was a sketch of an eel, and suddenly, memories of the abuse by my friend’s older brother rushed back; memories that I’d supposedly worked through ad infinitum over the years, and resolved, over many years of therapy. The images of a squid and an octopus, both phallic-adjacent, had bothered me in earlier lessons, but it was the eel that pushed me over the edge.

I resent the way memory works, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with the consequences of these triggers, and honoring the need to process what comes at me, with as much patience and self-compassion as I can muster. I used to think that I could force all of the therapy work to be done at one time, and on my schedule, and fully under my own control, but my brain refuses to let me. It decides when I’m ready, and when I’m not.

Maybe someday I will know everything that happened, and I will stop feeling like there are ghosts waiting to jump out at me from behind every curtain. But maybe not.

yeshiva girl with dogs

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

Passover on Lockdown

 

By the third week of lockdown I started to feel the isolation kicking in. I don’t know what made the difference; maybe it was when I started to feel pressure to make videos for synagogue school, or when I rushed to the local grocery store (on news of toilet paper) and found out that I was the only person not wearing a surgical mask (the cashier sold me some at the checkout counter, but by then I already felt like I’d been branded with the cooties). It was the first time I’d been at a store for a week, and it made me feel like hiding out in a bunker for another few months.

IMG_1414

“That works for us.”

I’m having a hard time concentrating, and sleeping, and my nightmares have followed me into lockdown. The anxiety seems to be creating weird attention deficit symptoms (ADD is not usually one of my diagnoses), and I’m having trouble focusing on any one thing for very long. I keep interrupting myself and jumping around from task to task, and then falling asleep for hours because I’ve exhausted myself. Even trying to write this essay feels like grabbing at thoughts trapped in helium balloons that are trying to escape out the window.

I’ve been outside a lot, because of the dogs, but we mostly stick to the backyard of the co-op. Most of our neighbors are careful about keeping ten or twenty feet away, instead of just six, but that’s what they did before the virus too. We walked the dogs up the hill one day, when I had more energy, but seeing the empty train station parking lot, and the empty streets, was disconcerting.

IMG_1408

Though some creatures like the wide open spaces.

I’ve spent hours on Pinterest looking for information on how to use Zoom, and Google Forms, and how to make and upload videos, and looking for games and puzzles and all kinds of things to share with my synagogue school students, on bible passages and Passover and moral lessons, but, you know, funny. And then there’s the time spent on Facebook and YouTube, which just seems to pass without my knowledge.

I’ve been exercising more than usual, trying to wear out the anxiety, and I found a murder mystery series from Australia starring Lucy Lawless (Xena Warrior Princess!), that was a lovely break from the news. But then I ran out of new episodes, and the panic returned.

We celebrated Mom’s birthday in lockdown, with a homemade chocolate chip yogurt cheesecake and lots of calls from family and friends. Oh, and I did the cleaning that day, not the next though.

We heard from my brother’s family for Mom’s birthday, and his wife, also a doctor on the front lines of this pandemic, said that my brother is doing more telemedicine than in-person ER work lately. Even if it’s not true, it was a nice attempt to reassure Mom that her baby boy is going to be okay.

delilah and scott2

My brother’s the one on the left

Mom has been sewing constantly. First there were the cloth grocery bags (because New York forbade plastic bags at the grocery stores starting March first – great timing!), but then most of the stores loosened the rules on plastic bags, probably because they didn’t want us dragging our germy cloth bags through their stores, so Mom moved on to making cloth masks. The first prototype was thick and had a hepa filter in it and suffocated me, but the next design was easier to wear and only made my glasses fog up a few times, so now she’s making tons of them to send to family and friends.

I finally received my latex gloves from Amazon this week, so now I feel a little better about doing the laundry, because for a while there I worried that I was picking up germs from one doorknob and transferring them to another, and killing everyone.

I hear different estimates for how long we’ll be in lockdown. We are supposedly, maybe, in the apex of the thing right now, but who knows. We could get multiple apexes, especially if we leave lockdown too soon. At the very least, we’re going to be practicing social distancing, and wearing masks and gloves, into the middle of the summer.

The hardest thing for me is trying to forgive myself for struggling through this. My expectations of myself are always much higher than I can live up to, and now is no different. I have to keep reminding myself that I am doing enough, even on the days when I’m not doing much at all. And I hate the anxiety. I hate the way it makes my heart beat too fast, and makes me nauseous, and makes it feel like shards of glass are traveling through my veins and airways. And I hate the way it makes me so sure that everything is my fault and everything would be within my control if I just tried hard enough. My little yoga practice helps, sometimes, when the anxiety starts to tell me that I should be able to earn more degrees, and write more novels, and learn how to fly, during all of this free time.

Even Governor Cuomo, Mister tough guy, acknowledged that mental health has been an issue for him, and his daughters, and his dog. Exercise helps, and being heard helps too. Maybe that’s why he does a press conference every day.

Ellie likes to sit on my lap for our noon Zoom sessions with the clergy from our synagogue. One day I even brought a pair of scissors over, to trim the mats from her ears and tail, because those forty-five minutes are her most docile of the day, but I can’t imagine what the other people on the Zoom must have been thinking.

IMG_1423

“They were thinking that my Mommy is insane.”

Cricket prefers the streaming services on Friday nights, probably because we sit on the couch to watch those in our pajamas. That’s more her speed. She needs the rest after long days spent screaming at possible zombies, or squirrels, passing by our door.

IMG_1520

Cricket likes when the cantor sings to her.

I’m too aware of how well other people are adapting to the shutdown, and adapting to the technology, while I struggle just to keep my head above water. I watch as my fellow synagogue school teachers make videos and run Zoom classes, while I’m still trying to learn how to do Google Forms. I watch all of the videos people are making on Facebook, where they’re making chair lifts and fake snow hills in their backyards, or singing incredible duets, or making Covid 19 parodies to keep people entertained, and I feel like a turtle, no, slower than a turtle, more like a snail.

I feel like the kid standing ten feet behind the diving board, watching while everyone else lines up to dive in. And all of this is making me even more anxious about what happens once the shutdown ends, and even more changes take place in the world, and I need to keep catching up, or at least running behind with the stragglers, to prove that I’m trying to keep up, even if I won’t ever actually catch up.

I guess Passover is an appropriate time for this type of internal crisis. I am in the Sea of Reeds, waiting for God to part the waters. I jumped in with everyone else, because I couldn’t stand the peer pressure of standing on the shore, and because I didn’t want to be killed by the Egyptian solders rushing to capture us, but while everyone ahead of me has faith that the waters will part, or that they will be able to swim to the other side, I am treading water, barely breathing, and holding onto the tiniest bit of hope that I won’t drown.

We never hear that version of the story. We hear about the brave ones who jump in first and lead the rest to safety, or the evil ones who chase them into the sea, but I’m the type of person who jumps in because I see no other option, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m already scared of what’s going to happen after we make it to the other side and have to then travel through the desert, which is full of even more unknowns. But I’m holding on anyway.

We had two communal Zoom Seders in our congregation, one for each night. They weren’t perfect, of course. Sometimes the sound dropped out, or the shared-screen froze, or people forgot to mute themselves. But we were brought together when we really needed togetherness to help us manage the fear and isolation. We have a virtual place to go while the real world is off limits, and I can bring my dogs with me to that safe place.

IMG_1412

 

So, yes, I’m scared, and overwhelmed, and feeling intimidated and not good enough, but I’m also feeling held and seen, and feeling like, just when I thought the bottom was going to drop out of the universe and send us hurling through space, we’ve created a magic carpet to catch our fall.

There’s a song that we sing a lot in our congregation, in Hebrew and English and in many different musical versions, but the line that resonates the most for me is:

“Spread a canopy of peace, a canopy of love, for everyone.”

And that’s what it feels like we are doing, with all of our Zooms and YouTube videos and group freak out sessions on Facebook. We are creating a patchwork canopy of peace for everyone to grab onto. It’s not like standing on solid ground, but when there’s no solid ground it’s a pretty damn good substitute.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Okay, but what’re you gonna give me for this piece of Matzah I just found?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?