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The Mama Bird

            There was a mama bird in the rhododendron bush again. I have pictures, from years ago, of a robin’s nest in the same bush: from the little blue eggs to the baby birds as they grew and stretched and learned how to fly. But the rhododendron bush has grown much bigger over the years, and the current robin built her nest further inside and a little too high for me to get a glimpse inside the nest, even with my phone. But I loved watching her build her nest, and watching it grow taller and sturdier each day. She mostly wove in branches, but she also took other materials from the yard to add softness to the inside.

The previous robin family

            I could see the mama bird throughout the day, each time I took the dogs out for a walk, and she would be sitting on her nest, chin up at one side, tail up at the other side, so proudly guarding and warming her eggs, turning like a sundial throughout the day. I made a point of greeting her each time, and wishing her good luck, and asking her when the babies would be born, though she never answered me. There’s something about baby birds and their rubbery, alien-like vulnerability that makes me feel so hopeful.

            My neighbors and I would check in with each other to share news of the mama bird, sharing our thoughts about her marvelous nest building skills, and her ability to ignore our dogs. No one else was able to get a picture of her either, as far as I know.

            But then she was gone. One neighbor was tall enough to check inside the nest, after a few days of not seeing her, and he said that there were no broken egg shells, no signs of habitation at all. He said he hoped that meant she had taken her eggs somewhere else, maybe somewhere further out of human reach; but she’d spent so much time building the nest, and she’d spent so much time sitting on the nest, that it seemed unlikely, to me, that she would pack up the whole family and move at such a late date.

            I don’t know what happened. Maybe another bird came along and stole her eggs, or maybe the eggs fell out of the nest and another animal carried them off. Or maybe it was a false pregnancy from the beginning. When I was younger, I had a dog who had a lot of false pregnancies. Dina, a black lab mix, would create a nest for herself underneath my parents’ bed, scratching the carpet for nesting material until all that was left of the carpet was the webbing underneath. She was convinced that she was about to have puppies, and she even produced some milk, but there were never any puppies. The repeating cycle of expectation and loss overwhelmed her, with the hormones rushing through her body making her eyes glassy with confusion. I felt Dina’s grief in my own body and it has always stayed with me.

Miss Dina in later life

            Around the same time that the mama bird was creating her nest this spring, and beginning to roost, flowers blossomed on the pawpaw tree, twenty or so feet away. And then, after the mama bird disappeared, the deep red pawpaw flowers fell to the ground, leaving behind the beginnings of pawpaw fruit, little clusters that looked like hands starting to stretch out. We had our first homegrown, ripe, paw paw fruit last year, and I’d like to think this year we might have two, or even three.

The pawpaw hand.

            It’s painful to feel hopeful so often and have my hopes dashed, like Dina and her false pregnancies, and yet I’ve found that it’s even more painful to try to live without hope. It’s sad to think that the mama bird lost her babies, or never had them in the first place, but it would be even harder to have never seen her sitting on her nest, dreaming of her future, in the first place. And watching the small pawpaw fruit start to appear fills me with wonder, independent of whether or not they become full grown fruit; though I’d prefer to have a small harvest by the end of the growing season, of course. But just the harvest, without the hours and days and months of hope leading up to it, wouldn’t be enough. The feeling of hope, more than anything else, is really the point.

“Uh, we prefer the food.”

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?         

Looking for Butterflies

            Sometime in the midst of prepping for Mom’s hip surgery, Duolingo announced that I was in the running for the semifinals, of something. I spend some time every day on Duolingo, practicing my Hebrew and French, learning Spanish or German or Yiddish. I’m sure that part of my language learning adventure has been about wanting to feel smart and impressive, but first and foremost I’m fascinated by what languages can teach us about who we are and how we understand ourselves. I don’t practice each language every day, some days I do a little of a few different languages, some days I do a deep dive into one of the languages, sometimes I just do enough to keep my streak alive for another day.

            But then there was this tournament. It wasn’t hard to get into the semifinals: I just had to do the same number of lessons I usually do every day. And even getting into the finals didn’t take much extra effort. But once I was in the finals I started to feel pressure to spend hours each day earning points, by studying old lessons and learning new ones. By then, Mom was home from the hospital, and struggling. I was basically on call 24/7 to make sure she took the right medications, at the right times, and had enough to drink and food, if she could stand to eat, and I was also taking care of the dogs and the apartment and the laundry and the shopping.

“But we’re so easy!”

            And, at first, the extra time spent on Duolingo was a relief, a chance to think about something other than life and death and pain and all of the ways I was failing my mom, and all of the ways I was failing in life overall. I won eighty points with one lesson – I must be a genius!!! But as the week of the finals went on, and the pressure grew, I was on my cellphone so much that it kept running out of power. I usually don’t notice how much battery is left on my phone, I just put it on its charger when I go to sleep and it takes care of itself, but now it needed to be charged multiple times a day. I was doing Yiddish lessons in between trips to the laundry room, and Spanish lessons while the tea was steeping, and French and German when I had free time and would normally be trying to write, or read. Every time I saw my name fall down to, say, twentieth place, when only the top fifteen would win, I felt like a failure. I had to push harder, do more, and win! I didn’t even know what I might win if I made it into the top fifteen, but it said that the top fifteen would be winners and I wanted to be a winner!

“I’m already a winner.”

            The dogs handled the early days of Mom’s recovery really well, thank God. Ellie was her usual sweet self, sleeping on the floor of Mom’s room, sending good vibes throughout the day and night, and knowing to come to me for food or trips and let Mom rest. Even Cricket did better than I had expected. She (mostly) listened when she was told to stay off Mom’s lap, or away from her feet when she was walking slowly down the hall. There was one bad night, though, when she didn’t listen. I found out in the morning that, using her good leg, Mom had kicked Cricket off the bed, and Cricket flew across the room, losing her tags halfway across the floor (I reattached the tags the next morning, pressing extra hard with the plyers so that at least if she went flying again she’d still have her identification on her).

“Harrumph.”

By the weekend of the Duolingo finals, Mom was starting to feel better, not needing me to be on call as much, and my obsession with my placement in the Duolingo rankings became constant. By midday, Sunday, I was in 16th place, one spot away from the winner’s circle, but the whole thing was becoming tedious and I was starting to hate learning languages, which is not like me at all. The only time I could get any perspective was when my phone ran out of power and I was forced to take a break while it was on its charger. I was still able to walk the dogs, and clean, and cook, and make tea when necessary, so there were a few minutes here and there when I wasn’t on my phone, trying desperately to keep up, but not many.

            By early evening I had made it into thirteenth place and I thought it was safe to take a break to make dinner, and eat dinner, since the competition would be ending at 11 PM. But when I looked at the rankings again, an hour later, I was back down in sixteenth place. I sat with Mom in the living room, supposedly watching TV, but really trying to earn enough points to get back into the winner’s circle. It was about 10:40 PM and I was still about one hundred points from fifteenth place – winner! – when the battery ran out and my phone shut off. I had seen the warnings that I was low on power, twenty percent left, ten percent left, but I was too busy to stop and charge it, and I was sure I had enough to make it through the end of the tournament, and I was wrong.

At 10:40 PM, I knew that even if my phone charged quickly, I’d still be too far behind to make up the points by 11. Each point I earned would be matched, at least, by the guy in fifteenth place, and he would always be at least a hundred points ahead of me. I wasn’t sure if the people ahead of me in the rankings had more free time, more competitive spirit, better strategy, or if they just had Duolingo Plus, the paid version, which makes it much easier to earn a lot of points at once, but I knew I was out.

            So, I finally let go. I put my phone on its charger, and took the dogs out for their last walk of the day, and brushed my teeth, and tried to accept defeat. Some small part of me felt guilty for giving up, telling me I could have switched over to the Duolingo site on my computer and at least tried to earn the last one hundred, two hundred, three hundred points, however unlikely success might be. But I didn’t do that. I just made my overnight oats for breakfast, took my evening meds, and watched the clock as the last few minutes ran out on the Duolingo tournament.

            I was already planning this essay by then – because the extremeness of my behavior around this meaningless tournament worried and intrigued me. I could stand back, finally, and wonder if I was specifically vulnerable to this obsession because of the helplessness of watching Mom struggle to recover from her surgery. Or if maybe there’s something in my brain in general that can’t tell the difference between what’s important and what isn’t important, and I truly believed that winning this tournament could change my life in some significant way.

            Mom had a much better way of distracting herself. For Mother’s Day, before the surgery, when I was searching through Amazon for something Mom might like, I found a butterfly kit. I’d never heard of such a thing, but Mom loved the idea, and then spent half a day looking for the right one (not the one I’d found), and it arrived a few days before the surgery. She set it up in her room, and read diligently through the instructions for how to take care of the caterpillars, and their habitat. Luckily, there wasn’t anything I needed to do for them while Mom was in the hospital, because I was too busy cooking and cleaning and freaking out, to have made sense of more instructions.

            And when Mom came home and was dealing with all of the pain and discomfort of recovery, she watched the caterpillars creating their chrysalises, and she fed them and cared for them, and when the butterflies started to emerge, Mom was starting to feel better, and by the time Mom was ready to start walking outside with the physical therapist, it was time to hang the butterfly habitat outside on a tree, and open the zipper, and let the new butterflies find their way out into the world.

            The metaphor of the whole thing really resonated, for both of us (though Mom was disappointed that the butterflies flew away so quickly after their transformation). The presence of these creatures, transforming in her room, gave her something hopeful to look at every day. Even if she never intended the butterflies to be such a clear metaphor, some unconscious part of her brain knew what she would need and sought it out.

            And, for whatever reason, my mind sought out the Sisyphean task of trying to win a Duolingo tournament I could never win.

            There was such relief when the tournament was finally over, even though I’d ended up right outside of the winner’s circle in sixteenth place. I was able to look away from my phone again and realize that Mom really was feeling better, and moving better, and ready to make her own tea again, the way she actually liked it. And I was finally able to go back to my other obsession: watching endless episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and basking in Jessica Fletcher’s ability to decipher clues and solve murders and believe in herself despite constant criticism. In a way, Jessica Fletcher is the butterfly version of my caterpillar self, and watching her gives me hope that someday I might come out of my chrysalis and really be able to fly.

            At the same time, Cricket started to realize that her Grandma wasn’t in as much danger anymore, and decided to resume her regular habits: including her insistence on sitting on her Grandma’s lap and barking her demands as persistently and loudly as possible. She made it clear, in her own way, that there was more to life than winning a Duolingo tournament, or even watching episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and it would require me to get up and take her and her sister outside to look for the butterflies.

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 Importance of Teeth

            About two months ago I went to see an oral surgeon, sent by my regular dentist, to see what my options might be in treating my Lichen Planus (an autoimmune disorder that impacts the tissues of my mouth, causing gum recession and bone loss and resulting in loose teeth). I had expected my old dentist to have a plan to help me, because he’d said he had one, but then he retired, without telling me his plan, and his replacement suddenly wanted me to go to an outside expert for advice, without saying what that advice might be.

            I had no idea what to expect at the appointment, but my new dentist had praised the oral surgeon for his ability to deal with autoimmune patients like me, and she seemed to believe that he’d have better treatment options than what she could think of herself, or what my previous dentist had left behind in his notes. She made it sound like there could be a way to slow the tooth loss, and to treat the Lichen Planus more effectively than the oral pathologist had been able to manage for years now.

“Who me, skeptical?”

            So when I walked into the oral surgeon’s exam room, after a full x-ray of my mouth, and he immediately began his spiel about how he would remove all of my upper teeth and replace them with an implant that would be anchored into my cheek bones, because I don’t have enough bone for regular implants, and he doesn’t think bone grafts are stable enough, and a partial implant would be a waste of time and money, and the whole thing would cost $40,000, and none of it would be covered by my health insurance.

            I had no idea what to say, or do. I couldn’t talk to anyone in the aftermath. Even talking to my Mom just turned into hysterical crying. Mom called the dentist for an explanation of what the oral surgeon was proposing, and the dentist said that my situation was much worse than my now retired, dentist had told me, though he had noted it down in my chart. The dentist said that she would consult with the oral surgeon, and with the oral pathologist, and get back to me with an explanation of the options available.

            She didn’t call back though, and I didn’t have the courage to call her myself. I didn’t want to be on the phone with a relative stranger, crying and feeling helpless and inarticulate, especially when I couldn’t even figure out why it was all so overwhelming. I just couldn’t think at all.

“I know the feeling.”

            My therapist wasn’t really concerned. She said I should just get a denture instead, because it would cost less and be just as good. I was wearing my face mask at the time so she couldn’t see the look of horror on my face at the idea of dentures. She also expected me to be able to call the dentist and talk through the options, even though I kept trying to tell her that I couldn’t do it; that I couldn’t even pick up the phone, let alone dial the phone number or, god forbid, talk.

            But then Mom got the news that she’d have to have hip surgery (first on one hip and then, three months or so later, on the other), and I found out about two possible diagnoses that might explain my various medical issues, and I got distracted with going for more tests and making appointments with new doctors, and Mom and my therapist got excited about the possibility of my finally getting a diagnosis, and the whole question of my teeth was forgotten. Except that I kept looking in the mirror at the two precariously loose teeth, close to the front of my mouth, that could become infected or even fall out at any time, leaving me feeling like a hobo, unable to go out in public or show my face on Zoom, and with no plan for what to do.

“I make missing teeth look cute.”

I wrote down my questions for the dentist, and a long list of questions for myself about why I was getting so stuck, but then I put my notebook aside, because not only couldn’t I think of any answers, I couldn’t even stand to look at the questions.

            But now I’m getting closer to my next regularly scheduled appointment with the dentist, and I know I need to prepare myself, but it’s still too freaking hard.

            I know that the money issue overwhelms me. I feel selfish even considering this zygomatic (cheek bone-anchored) implant, which would require a student loan-sized debt, on top of my existing debt, instead of accepting the idea of a denture. I don’t even know if there is a way to borrow the money for such a thing.

            And I’m angry that this is happening, given how much effort I’ve put into taking care of my teeth, and how much effort I’ve put into trying to deal with the medical issues that caused all of this, and I am angry that my health insurance doesn’t cover dental issues even when they are directly caused by medical issues. And I am so angry that my previous dentist, who was my dentist for more than twenty years, didn’t prepare me for this in some way; didn’t even tell me to put money aside, just in case. He just kept telling me to trust him, that he’d take care of things, and that we’d make a plan when the time came. But when he announced his upcoming retirement, and I asked him about that plan, he didn’t make time for me, just sent me on to his replacement.

            And I’m angry that basics like dental care, hearing aids, and even glasses, aren’t covered by health insurance. They’ll cover the eye exam, but not the glasses that are prescribed. They’ll cover the audiologist, but not the hearing aids. And they’ll pay for my visits to the oral pathologist to treat the Lichen Planus, but they won’t cover the damage the Lichen Planus does to my teeth, or more accurately, to my gums and bone, which hold my teeth in place.

            I’m afraid of how a denture or an implant will change the way I look, or eat, or talk, or sing. And I’m afraid of being in even more debt. I’ve already paid off two masters’ degrees in writing, and I’m about halfway through paying for my third, very expensive, master’s degree in social work. And I’m afraid of losing the two loosest teeth, the ones that are visible in the front of my mouth, before I figure out what to do.

            I don’t know how to make a decision while I’m still feeling too humiliated to even ask the dentist the most basic questions.

            I guess the humiliation is at the core of all of this, as usual. But knowing that doesn’t change how overwhelming it feels. I feel guilty and worthless and small and unimportant, again and again. But it’s possible that being able to write all of this down is a sign that I’m getting somewhere. I hope.

“I believe in you, Mommy.”

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?

An Israeli Reality Show

            I’m not a huge fan of reality shows. I do watch things like Project Runway and Top Chef, because I like watching what the contestants can create and how they are able to create it, but even the commercials for any of the Real Housewives of Wherever shows or The Bachelor and The Bachelorette make me nauseous. So I wasn’t thrilled when my current Hebrew teacher (in my online language classes from Tel Aviv) said that the Israeli show we’d be watching as a class this semester, to practice our Hebrew listening skills, would be a reality show called Married at First Sight (Chatunah MiMabat Rishon, in Hebrew).

            Oy, God help me.

            The logic behind her choice was that she wanted us to practice listening to how people really speak Hebrew in daily life, with all of the repetitions and slang and run on sentences, as opposed to the scripted Hebrew of the comedy and drama shows I watched (and loved) in previous classes. And I can see her point. But…

            The gimmick of this particular show is that the couples don’t meet until they are under the Chupah (the wedding canopy). There’s a three member team of psychologists who interview the candidates and choose the pairings based on their deep knowledge of humanity, I guess, though they are limited in their choices by who is willing to be on a reality show like this in the first place.

“Are we on a reality show?”

            And then we, as an audience, get to know the future bride and groom and where they work and who their friends and families are, and we watch them trying on wedding dresses and suits and talking to the psychologists, and then the families and friends meet at the wedding venue, and then the bride and groom come out and finally meet each other for the first time under the Chupah.

The wedding ceremony itself is sort of Jewish-wedding-lite, except, they still have the “groom” stomp on a glass (an important symbol meant to remind us of the loss of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, so that even on our happiest days we still remember our saddest days), and even that much feels icky.

            We’re watching the fourth season in class, which means that this show has lasted quite a while, and a lot of people seem to enjoy it. This season was filmed during Covid, so there are face masks here and there, and they probably did a lot of Covid testing behind the scenes, and the only place the couples could go on their honeymoons, outside of Israel, was the Seychelles, for some reason.

“Can we go to the Seychelles? Do they have chicken there?”

            So far, every time one of the brides has been introduced at the wedding, her soon to be groom has been blown away by how beautiful she is, which gets under my skin. The women that are chosen are all thin, of course, and the makeup and hair people are excellent, and the dresses are beautiful too. The guys look a bit more average, though none of them has a beer gut. For me, all of this adds to the ugh-factor, because I am not skinny or perfect, and I don’t have a team of makeup and hair people on call, and I’d still like to believe that someone could fall in love with me, but shows like this keep telling me it’s not possible.

            Following along with the almost-like-a-Jewish-wedding concept, the couple first gets to spend some time “alone” together, with a cameraman, when they go to the Yichud room (the togetherness room) after the ceremony. This is a custom in orthodox, or strictly orthodox, weddings, where the Yichud room is the first time the bride and groom are allowed to be alone together without a chaperone, and therefore finally get a chance to hold hands, or even kiss (there isn’t much time for anything else, but now that they’re married they can do whatever they want). On the show, this really is just a time for the new couple to talk to each other for the first time and exchange small bits of information, like, I have a dog, I have ten tattoos, or I smoke (which, I guess, is still a thing in Israel).

            Then there’s the party, with all of the music and dancing and friends and such, and everyone comments on how wonderful the match is, just to reassure themselves that this whole thing isn’t crazy.

            Then the couple goes to an apartment for the night, to talk and eat and put on their wedding rings and find out where they’re going for their honeymoon (The Seychelles? Oh my God! Who knew!), all filmed by a camera person, or camera people. And then, at some point, the camera people leave and the door is closed for the night. Thankfully.

            So, each week in class, after we’ve watched the week’s episode on our own, we discuss what we liked, didn’t like, didn’t believe, laughed out loud at, wanted to scream about, etc. It’s such a silly show that our conversations about it end up being mostly fun and silly too, though there is quite a lot of backseat diagnosing (because some of the brides and grooms are crazy), and there are always a lot of questions about what the team of psychologists could have been thinking by putting these two people together. Oh, and all of this discussing has to be done in Hebrew.

            Not surprisingly, I can’t relate to most of the people on the show. They are presented to us as the most charming, gorgeous, successful and ambitious people, almost as if they are all the same person, though, clearly, they aren’t. The one thing they do have in common, though, is a willingness to have their intimate relationships recorded and aired in public, which I don’t understand.

I remember how awful it felt when I had to do a sleep study at home, and along with wearing all kinds of monitors I had to keep a video camera aimed at me twenty-four/seven, in case I had some kind of cardiac or neurological event and they needed to see what I was doing when my numbers went wonky. I hated knowing that some stranger might eventually be watching me sleep, eat, or watch TV, though the likelihood that even one person would ever watch a small part of the tape was really low.

“That was a really boring movie.”

            And even if I could tolerate being watched all day and night, I would be deeply suspicious that my “groom” would just be saying that nice/patient/compassionate thing because the cameras were on him and he wanted to look good on TV, and once the cameras stopped the real person would be an asshole and I’d feel like a fool.

            My teacher this semester is a beautiful, young, charming, funny actress/student from just outside of Tel Aviv, so in a way this show fits the energy of the semester overall: lots of silliness and fun, and nothing too deep or serious. She herself, she says, has not been tempted to try out for the show, and prefers making fun of the people who do, which makes her more relatable. She’s always friendly and full of praise for our attempts to speak Hebrew, and never negative or hurtful, but still, part of me worries that this reality show is telling me what real Telavivians are like, and if I go there, which I really want to do, they will rip me apart. Though that could be my old stuff playing up again, from back in elementary school when the beautiful, competitive, well-dressed girls in my class hated my guts.

There’s also the disorienting fact that while this is a reality show taking place in Israel, there is no sense of the politics, or violence, or the social divides between Jews and Arabs and between secular and religious Jews. Even in my lovely, fun, cheery Hebrew class this semester, we still had to talk about the terrorist attack that happened in Tel Aviv recently, where sirens and ambulances and death took over the city for a while. But those things don’t come up on the show, or at least, they haven’t so far.

Hopefully, as the season goes on, there will be a little bit more reality in this reality show, and maybe one or two people I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life. But even if nothing improves on the show, I’m definitely improving my Hebrew listening skills, and learning more about how real Israelis talk when they don’t have a script; which has been reassuring, actually. Clearly I’m not the only one who struggles to find the right words.

“Don’t worry, Mommy. I have trouble with words too.”

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?

Genetic Testing

            About a year ago I had to go to a Gastroenterologist, both because I was experiencing belly pain and nausea (still am) and because my Cardiologist was impatient for me to schedule my first colonoscopy.   The gastro took my concerns seriously and when he saw a note in my chart from a Rheumatologist saying that I have a clinical diagnosis of Ehler’s Danlos (a connective tissue disorder), he referred me to a geneticist to see what type of Ehler’s Danlos I have, because certain types can make a colonoscopy dangerous, and he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.

It took a while to get an appointment with the geneticist, and then it took a while for the first set of results to come back, which were inconclusive, and then it took a lot longer for a more comprehensive set of tests to be performed.

“That sounds exhausting.”

            I finally heard from the geneticist in March, and she said that there were a few genetic mutations (see, I AM a mutant!). Most of my genetic test results came back as “variant of uncertain significance,” because they’ve recognized mutations on certain genes (related to Connective Tissue disorders and mitochondrial disorders, in my case) but are not yet sure what those mutations signify. There was also a “likely pathogenic variant” on the LMNA gene, something I’d never heard of and had to google extensively. The geneticist referred me to a neuromuscular specialist to look into a possible LMNA-related disorder, and sent me for more tests see if I might have a mitochondrial disorder, based on the variants of uncertain significance, and it turned out that there was something there, so she also referred me to a hospital that specializes in mitochondrial disorders.

            I am not used to doctors taking me seriously, or even taking my test results seriously, so I haven’t quite taken in the idea that there might be a name for what I have, and doctors who are willing to try and treat it. I’m still worried that this will be another dead end and I’ll be back on the doctor roller coaster by the fall, with no validation and no treatments to show for it.

            The LMNA thing is still mostly a mystery to me (my brother, the doctor, had never heard of it), but the research I’ve read says that pathogenic variants on the LMNA gene can cause diseases like: muscular dystrophies, dilated cardiomyopathy, premature aging disorders, and a bunch of other diseases I’ve never heard of. There could be a connection between the LMNA variant I have and the scoliosis that runs in my family (on my mother’s side). There could also be a connection between some of my muscle weakness and walking problems and heart murmur and all of this, but the research I was able to find was mostly about much more serious disorders related to the LMNA gene variants and didn’t sound, overall, like what I’ve been experiencing all these years.

            My research on mitochondrial disorders came a lot closer to fitting my situation, though, with a list of possible symptoms like: exercise intolerance, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, and severe exhaustion. Type 2 Diabetes can also be a symptom of a mitochondrial disorder, and that runs on my father’s side of the family, and has always been a concern for me.

            Mitochondrial disorders cause cells to have trouble metabolizing proteins, so the body doesn’t get adequate oxygen or energy, and instead produces lactic acid and other organic acids that can be toxic to the body. If I do have this, I have a mild version (compared to children who show signs in infancy), which would explain why it’s been hard to diagnose.

            The hospital that specializes in mitochondrial disorders has already requested a lot of my previous medical records, including MRI’s and spinal tap results. I’m not sure what else they will need in order to determine a diagnosis, but the articles I’ve read have mentioned muscle biopsies as likely next steps, and they may also want me to redo scans, or even, god forbid, redo the spinal tap which sent me to the hospital last time around.

Miss Butterfly held my sock ransom until I came home

It makes sense that mitochondrial disorders are hard to diagnose, because symptoms can range from mild to severe, involve one or more organs, and can occur at any age. Symptoms can include: poor growth; muscle weakness or pain, low muscle tone, and exercise intolerance; vision or hearing problems; learning disabilities or developmental disabilities; autism spectrum disorder; heart, liver or kidney disease; gastrointestinal disorders, swallowing difficulties, diarrhea or constipation, vomiting, cramping or reflux; diabetes; increased risk of infection; neurological problems (seizures, migraines, strokes); movement disorders; thyroid problems; respiratory problems; lactic acidosis; and dementia.

            There’s also no known cure for these disorders, just experimental treatments to help reduce symptoms, including vitamins and supplements like: Coenzyme Q10, B complex vitamins, Alphalipoic acid, L-carnitine, Creatine, L-arginine; and exercise, rest and physical therapy. They also say to avoid alcohol (check), cigarettes (check), extreme temperatures (I try), lack of sleep (hmm), Stress (hmm) and MSG (which could explain why I have developed a bad reaction to the Chinese food I used to love.)

“I’ll eat your Chinese food for you.”

            So it looks like I will be spending the summer being examined again, with who knows what potential results. The geneticist also made sure to give me an appointment for next year, in case none of these diagnoses pan out. She said that the genetics field is discovering new things every day, with more sensitive tests coming soon, and more research on how gene mutations influence different diseases. So I will probably see her once a year until they are able to figure out what’s going on with me and how to treat it.

            Wish me luck!

“Good luck, Mommy!”

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?

Envy and the Yetzer Hara

            There’s a Jewish concept called the Yetzer Hara, or the evil inclination, which (along with the Yetzer Hatov, or the good inclination) at first glance seems to be a version of having a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but it’s more complicated than that. As usual.

“Why is everything so complicated?”

            The Yetzer Hara has often been reinterpreted not so much as an inclination to evil, but as an inclination that can lead to evil. The rabbis say that the inclination to reproduce, or to create new things, or to succeed in life all come from this “evil” inclination, and therefore we need some amount of it in life even to survive, let alone to thrive. We need to have ambition and impulsivity and individual drive, but there’s a limit; though they don’t clarify exactly where those limits might be.

            The same rabbis say that if we took the Yetzer Hatov, the inclination for good, to an extreme we’d also have trouble. Because if we were always peaceful and calm, and never ambitious, we wouldn’t bother to grow crops, or have children, or make progress in science or art or philosophy, or even religion. We would be satisfied with whatever we had and peacefully die off. So the ideal is to find a balance between the two inclinations.

            But I’m not sure why the rabbis felt it necessary to call something “evil” that, in itself, isn’t evil at all, and to call something “good” which is more like peacefulness rather than goodness, and I think these names, and therefore these judgements on our inclinations towards creativity or peacefulness, are part of the reason why we struggle so much, both with accepting our ambitions and with accepting our need for rest.

“Rest is essential.”

            I’ve been thinking about this question of what’s really evil, and what is just called evil in our society, because I’ve been feeling a lot of envy for what other people have, or what they look like, or just who they are, and having these feelings has been making me feel like I’m a bad person, and stops me from being able to look at these feelings head on, because I’m afraid I will discover that I really am bad.

The Tenth Commandment says that we shouldn’t covet (or envy) what our neighbors have. The other commandments focus on doing or not doing something, but this one is about what we feel. Our ancestors, I guess, were afraid of their emotions and judged those emotions as if they were equal to bad action. But why?

Research on envy distinguishes between malicious envy and benign envy. Malicious envy is when you want to take something away from someone else, or hurt the person who has what you want, and benign envy is when you see that someone else has something you want and that motivates you to achieve that thing for yourself.       

But what if envy itself is neutral, not positive or negative, just a human emotion that we can feel, and learn from, without having to judge ourselves for having it? What if envy itself isn’t benign or malicious at all, and it’s only what we do with our envy that gets us in trouble. What if we could allow ourselves to feel the envy, and then go on to feel the disappointment or grief of not being able to have what we want, or the determination and passion that helps us keep working for what we want. What if, by allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of our envy, we would realize that we don’t want what someone else has, but we want to feel the way they seem to feel, and then we can start to work on finding a better way to reach that feeling.

            The problem is that most people, including me, have trouble looking at those shadow parts of ourselves without being overwhelmed by crushing guilt and self judgement. And who can sit with that for very long? And therefore we can’t get to all of the important insights that envy, and all of our other difficult and painful emotions, have to offer us.

“What’s guilt?”

The fact is, the danger doesn’t come from envy but from unacknowledged and unprocessed envy. If I can sit with the envy long enough, it can tell me what matters to me and what I want to change in my life or in the world around me.

Envy has been a constant companion for me, so maybe that’s why I take the Tenth Commandment so personally, and feel so judged by it. It feels as if God is leaning down from Mount Sinai and pointing a big finger at me and saying: you, you’re the bad one. But I can’t help feeling envious. I envy people who are healthy, or who grew up feeling safe, or who’ve had better luck in love and in their careers. But feeling envious is not the same as taking an evil or hurtful action towards another person.

            Our fear that our emotions will take over and consume us is clearly old, both ancient in our society and old in our lifetimes, from childhood, when we had so little ability to manage the emotions overwhelming our little bodies.

            But if we, as adults, can’t distinguish between our feelings and our actions, and call both equally evil, then we will forget to distinguish between the people who choose to act in destructive ways and the people who don’t, because we will think we are all the same. And if we stay in that place, then we won’t be able to take any real responsibility for how we react to our emotions, and that space between feeling and action, where we have the opportunity to choose the path we will take, goes unexplored.

            I think what the rabbis were pointing to in the Yetzer Harah and the Yetzer Hatov is that they are inclinations, not acts; having an inclination, or a longing, or even a need, does not determine the action we will take as a result. It informs it, yes, but it doesn’t make anything inevitable. And we are so lucky to have these emotions and inclinations, these little angels (though definitely more than just two extremes, I think) sitting on our shoulders and telling us the more complex picture of what we feel and what we want, so that we can look at our feelings and look at the facts before we choose how to act.

            I just wish we could give these inclinations better names, like, I don’t know, Maude and Henry, so we could treat them like the friends and confidants that they are meant to be, and not as the strangers, called Good and Evil, that they almost never really represent.

“We won’t have to share our chicken treats with Maude and Henry, will we?”

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?

End of the Synagogue School Year

            I need time to stop again. I keep needing time to stop; keep needing a chance to catch up with my life, because it’s running too far ahead of me.

“I’ll catch it for you, Mommy!”

            I’m looking forward to the end of the semester, and the beginning of summer vacation, because I need a break; but it’s sad that this will be the end of working with this particular group of kids, and probably this particular teacher’s aide, all of whom have had so much to teach me. There’s so much more I want them to learn, too.

            I feel pretty good about what my students have learned this year in Judaic Studies – both the ethical lessons from Leviticus and our virtual travels around the world to visit different communities of Jews throughout history. I keep finding more places and more eras where Jews have lived interesting and unexpected lives, and I love that I get to share all of this with the kids, and help them build a wider and deeper and more flexible idea of what it can mean to be Jewish. But their Hebrew needs work, and there are so many lessons I’ve had to cut from my lesson plans in favor of something else – a holiday, a musical event, etc. – and could never find time to add back in.

            But also, I get anxious before each class: worried I’ll leave something out, or miss something that’s going on with them. My expectations of what I should be able to do two afternoons a week, in eight or nine months, is out of whack with what’s truly possible, but still I always feel like I’m falling short.

“Did you just call me short?”

            Of course, part of my summer vacation will be spent revising lesson plans to see how I can fit more in, and teach things more effectively. I need to work on my ability to teach through games – especially games like Jeopardy, which my teacher’s aide did with the kids twice this year to spectacular effect. And I need to figure out how to repeat lessons more often, but in different ways, until the material really sticks, for most of them rather than just for some of them. And I want to revise my readings to better fit their current reading levels.

            But before I do that, I need a nap. And I need a chance to refocus on my own work and my own learning process and getting my own stories told. I tend to live in a state of high anxiety during the school year, and I need to transition out of that into something more sustainable that allows for more creativity and imagination.

“And you need to take your dogs for more walks.”

            But, I’m worried that my teenage teacher’s aide – a fourteen year old boy with the sense of responsibility of someone much older, and a really lively curiosity and comfort level with the kids, and of course, an endless supply of ideas for how to gamify learning and keep the kids on their toes – won’t come back next year; that he’ll go on to teach his own class, or leave the synagogue school completely in favor of brighter pastures, like, I don’t know, the school play, or an after school tech club, or starting his own business out of his parent’s garage. And I’m worried about all of the unknowns for next year – whether I’ll have a classroom of my own or stay in the cavernous social hall, whether I’ll have a teacher’s aide at all, and what new and unexpected challenges my next group of students will bring with them. And I’m excited that the kids from my first ever class are going into their B’nei Mitzvah year, and every other week I will get to see them coming into their own and claiming their Jewishness, surrounded by their friends and families. And I’m hopeful about our new educational director and all of the energy and ideas and collaborative spirit she will bring with her.

            But right now, I really need a nap. I need to rest and recover from all of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years. I just need time to stop for a little while, so I can catch up with myself, and feel rested and ready for whatever comes next.

“Ah, nap time.”

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?

Cricket Has a Big Mouth

            Cricket has a big mouth. I don’t mean anatomically, because she is a pretty small dog, eleven pounds or so, but she just won’t shut up. She barks at anyone and everyone who dares to enter her yard (it’s a shared yard, for the whole co-op, so people are always coming and going), and she yells at us for all manner of sins: like, not giving her more treats when she’s already had three, or not taking her out as soon as she wants to go, or not being able to figure out what she wants when she’s explicitly barked it at us twelve times in a row.

“How do you not understand me?!!!!!”

            She doesn’t bark at her friend Kevin, the one year old mini-Goldendoodle. She usually just swats at him with her paws to try to get him to pay attention to her when he dares to lie down on the grass and chew on a stick. But she barks at her sister, Ellie, and at pretty much anything that moves.

            If Cricket were more trainable (and she has proven to be distinctly untrainable), I would get her some of those floor buttons that have become popular recently in so many videos, where dogs are able to express themselves in English by pressing specific buttons with their paws.

            The problem is that, if she could actually be trained to use the buttons, she’d stomp on them so hard, and so often, that she’d break the buttons for ‘out’ ‘treat’ and ‘lap’ on the first day.

            Our neighbors, even the ones who like us, say, oh yeah, we heard Cricket through the window. We always know what Cricket is thinking.

            But then, she curls up on her grandma’s lap, or next to Grandma on the couch, or in tiny ball in her own doggy bed, and she looks like the sweetest puppy on the planet. Even with her little pink cauliflower growths, and age spots, and thinning hair, she still looks angelic and adorable and incapable of being difficult.

            But only when she’s sleeping.

            I’m afraid of what’s going to happen when Mom comes home from her hip surgery in a few weeks. I’m pretty sure that I will be the lucky recipient of most of Cricket’s anger when I try to put the dogs in my room to protect the visiting nurse, or when Mom closes her bedroom door at night to protect her new hip from being used as Cricket’s sleeping spot. I don’t know how Cricket is going to survive, or how my hearing will survive, really.

            It’s hard to be wholly negative about Cricket’s big mouth, though, even though she’s also used it to bite me a few times over the years (for daring to bathe her or comb her hair). She is a perfect example of how you can love someone who is deeply flawed. I may not love the barking itself, but I do love how adamant she is about being herself, no matter what, and I love that she knows what she wants and makes sure to ask for it. And while it would be nice if she could lower the volume, or learn from her mistakes, or compromise every once in a while, I know that’s not going to happen. And that’s okay.

            The fact is, Cricket is going to be fifteen years old this July, and she is exactly the same as she was at six months. She has only intensified over the years, like a really stinky cheese. Luckily for both of us, I love cheese.

“Me too!”

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?

Mom’s Hip Surgery

            A few weeks ago, Mom went to a new orthopedist and came home with an appointment for hip replacement surgery in May. She’d been experiencing spasms in her left leg and numbness in that foot for a long time, and while she was in physical therapy for that she noticed pain in her right leg as well. But before she could look into the new pain, she had to get carpal tunnel surgery on her left wrist (to match the surgery on her right wrist from last year), and then she needed a few weeks to recover, and then she got distracted. But in the past month or so she’d started to have trouble walking and was experiencing even more pain than usual, so she made an appointment with an orthopedist.

I barely noticed the appointment on the calendar in the living room, because the calendar was filled with so many other doctor visits, board meetings, quilting groups, and outings with friends, but then Mom became nauseous and so exhausted that she couldn’t get to all of her various appointments for a few days. We assumed it was a reaction to her second Covid booster shot (Pfizer this time), but it went on and on, so she called her Cardiologist’s office to see if it might be something more serious than a reaction to the booster. They gave her an appointment on the same day as her orthopedic appointment, so she decided to go to the orthopedist after all, since she had a few hours to kill before going to the Cardiologist.

            I woke up after she’d left for the Orthopedist, though not long after, because as soon as she closed the front door the dogs climbed up on my bed and Cricket decided to stand on my chest and stare at me until I got up. After breakfast, and a long argument with the dogs about whether or not they needed a second breakfast, Mom sent me a text to say that she was sitting in the waiting room at the new doctor’s office and she was bored. I tried to entertain her, unsuccessfully, and then took the dogs out for their second morning walk (I wasn’t up to another argument with them), and then I stared at the computer for way too long.

“Please play with me.”

I got another text from Mom a while later, saying that the nurse at the doctor’s office had had a similar reaction to the Pfizer booster, and it eventually passed (after three weeks!), but at least it was reassuring to know that this really was a reaction to the shot and not something more serious, so she could cancel the appointment with the Cardiologist, at least for now, which she really didn’t have the energy for after all of the sitting and waiting.

            I wrote back asking if the nurse had had any suggestions for how to manage the symptoms and Mom said she’d forgotten to ask, and then I didn’t hear from her and I assumed she was finally getting to see the doctor. I tried to get some work done (probably Duolingo), and read a few chapters about Disability Inclusion in the classroom, and The History of the State of Israel, and Intuitive Eating (three different books), and then I got another text.

On my way home. Will need a new hip.

Wait, what?!!!!

            There was no answer to my text because she was already driving home, but twenty minutes later I met her at the front door to our building and said, again, What?!!!

“What?!”

            Mom was in her own state of shock, so I had to wait until we were sitting on the couch in the living room and Cricket was ensconced on her Grandma’s lap – as God intended – before Mom could tell me more. The doctor had done x-rays, which, for some reason, hadn’t been done in a long time, and it turned out that Mom’s right hip had no cartilage left and was just bone on bone, and the left hip wasn’t much better. If the right hip went well, they would schedule surgery on the left one a few months later. When Mom asked them how this much damage could have come on so suddenly, the Physician’s Assistant said that people experience pain differently, and it’s possible that her body just didn’t register the pain until it was severe. Mom has always had (very) high pain tolerance, but even for her this seemed extreme. She ate some crackers (still nauseous) and drank some water (mixed with grape juice because that’s how she rolls) and then she convinced the dogs that it was time for a room change and an afternoon nap, but I just sat there on the couch, overwhelmed and struggling to take it all in.

“I’m guarding my Grandma. Keep your distance.

            I was angry at the doctors for not seeing this sooner, and for being so invalidating in their doctorliness over the years; and I was jealous that Mom had an actual solution to one of her health issues; and I was worried about the surgery and the anesthesia and any possible unintended consequences; and I was hopeful that this surgery could make a difference in Mom’s health overall, because maybe the more generalized pain she’s been experiencing is actually related to this hip situation and once that’s better she might feel better; and I was annoyed that she would be out of commission just when I needed her help (which I always do); and I was scared overall about her aging and her not being Supermommy forever, and, and, and.

            There was a lot going on in my mind, but within days it became clear that that her doctor – or his office, and the hospital in the city where the surgery would be performed – had it all planned out, with pre-op testing and webinars to explain everything and lists of aftercare devises and plans for a visiting nurse and a visiting physical therapist. All of those preset frameworks were reassuring, to both of us, and made it possible to believe that Mom might just be okay.

            But, all of this reminded me of when I was twenty-two and she (finally) had back surgery for her scoliosis. She was supposed to have it when my brother and I were away at camp one summer years earlier, but she’d had to cancel the whole thing because my father refused to be her support system, and the doctors didn’t have the same kinds of plans in place for outside supports back then. Instead, she waited to have the surgery until I was old enough to take care of her. I’d finished college a few months earlier and looked, from the outside, like a reasonable adult, but we were still living in my childhood home, with my abusive father, and I was still in a deep depression, and I was terrified that Mom would go to the hospital in the city and never come back.

            There were two surgeries, a week apart. After the first surgery, I sat up with her overnight, ready to drive her to the emergency room if necessary, trying to distract her, going out to get her medication, making toast and eggs, and then going to the library for recipe books so I could make her more food-like food when she was ready to eat it. She needed help washing her hair, and getting from one room to another, and I had to set my alarm for every three hours so I could remind her to take her medication overnight before the worst of the pain could kick in.

            My father drove me in to the city to see her after the second surgery, and being alone in a car with him felt like a hostage situation, wherein he pretended he was the best father in the world, but it was the only way for me to see Mom.

            My brother (who was finishing medical school) drove her home from the second surgery, and then we went through all of the same stages of recovery, with the alarm clocks and the toast and the hair-washing, until she could think straight and start to believe that the pain might eventually recede. The rest of the time, I sat alone in my room, shaking.

            But even before she’d fully recovered, Mom was so much stronger and she was ready to ask for the divorce she’d wanted for years. And, despite all of the fear and pain, those surgeries were a turning point, in both of our lives.

            I have been promised that this hip surgery, and the next one, will be nothing like those back surgeries: nowhere near the degree of danger, or pain, because they are so much better at this now, and so much better at the pre and post-operative care. And we have family and friends offering more help than we can even use, and I am so much stronger than I was back then.

            But, it’s hard not to be thrown back in time. And yet, I want to believe that Mom will feel stronger and more energetic and more secure on her feet once both hips are replaced. I want to picture her sitting on her birthday bench while she recovers, with Ellie by her side and Cricket sniffing every blade of grass in the yard, and the birds singing over their heads ignoring them completely. And I want to believe that this will be another good turning point, for both of us, despite the fear we’re feeling in the moment.

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?

Why am I afraid of eating less?

            It feels silly to even be thinking about this when I feel so fat and ugly, and so far from being able to lose weight, but this is probably the right time: because I’m not losing weight, and I’m not making progress with Intuitive Eating, and I’m not sure why. I’ve noticed that when I get to those moments where I could stop eating or keep going, a lot of fears come up, and that’s part of what makes me choose to continue eating.

            One of my fears is that even if I lose weight, nothing else in my life will change; nothing else in my body will change, so I’ll still be sick and tired and in pain, and nothing else in my mind will change, either. And if that’s what I’m thinking when I’m trying to decide whether or not it’s worth it to eat the last few bites of something, no wonder I choose the momentary feeling of relief that comes with eating, instead of the fear that I will never feel any relief at all.

            Another fear I’m aware of is that eating less food will lead to depression. I rely heavily on food to make up for the happiness hormones I don’t have in my body (and that my antidepressants can’t seem to completely make up for), and I’m afraid that eating less will mean feeling worse.   But I don’t understand why I feel quite so wretched and impatient and frightened and hopeless over just a few more bites of food.

“We’re starving!!!!!!”

My theory is that, maybe, food has been the secret to shutting off a lot of uncomfortable feelings that I haven’t wanted to feel, and if I eat even a little bit less they will all come rushing back; I will be swamped by loneliness, and impatience, and so much more, like a sleeping giant that I have been drugging into a stupor for years.

            When I check in with myself during a meal I feel uncomfortable in my body, but most of all I hear this crowd of inarticulate mush in my head that I can’t identify, and I can’t tolerate sitting with those thoughts and feelings long enough to figure out what they really are, let alone to manage them.

            All of this makes it sound, to me, as if I should keep eating the way I’ve been eating, because if I stop I will be in hell.

“Sounds about right.”

            But what about all of the uncomfortable feelings that food doesn’t get rid of, and what about the discomfort that eating too much actually causes itself? And what about the idea that feeling these feelings could give me a chance to heal the wounds that created them in the first place?

Except, my brain is so programmed to believe that food is the answer to everything, that even when food doesn’t help I can’t quite believe it. In science I think they’d call that a confirmation bias.

            So I tried to figure out which emotions might be part of the big inarticulate mush I’ve been avoiding, in the hopes that starting to identify the specific emotions could make them more bearable.

“Just feed me.”

Shame is one of the biggest feelings I try to mute with food. I feel it like a heat in my belly, and I felt it most acutely when I was skinny, especially as a teenager. Eating didn’t resolve the feelings of shame in the moment, but as I gained weight the shame started to quiet down.

Anxiety is another big one. Anxiety makes me feel as if everything in my body is in the wrong place: my belly is in my heart and my shoulders are at my knees. Also, I feel sped up, even manic, like I’m jumping out of my skin, and if I eat something I can start to feel more grounded. There are often times when I can write through, or exercise through, a bout of anxiety, but first I have to eat something so that I can even think about a better way to handle it.

            Helplessness and hopelessness bring on an on-the-edge-of-tears feeling, in my throat and behind my eyes, and sometimes an overall body shivering, and food seems to settle my body down, even if it can’t relieve the underlying hurt.

            Disappointment, or feeling like a failure, feels like an overwhelming emptiness in my belly, which is probably why it seems so much like hunger to me.

Loneliness often leads to eating too, because food is like a good friend who knows me and knows what I need without having to ask. When I feel really lonely, the feeling of disconnection is inside of me and makes it impossible for me to connect with other people, but food starts to help me feel reconnected to myself, which is at least a place to start.

            These are the emotions I can identify, but I think there must be so much more that I’m keeping on mute, because I just can’t figure out how to eat less, no matter how hard I try and no matter how many writing/thinking/eating/breathing exercises I put in place. It’s not even that I eat so much; it’s that what I eat, and when I eat, and how I choose what to eat is determined by the need to mute those unbearable emotions, instead of by physical hunger. And until I can feel my physical hunger, and not confuse it with all of these other feelings in my body, I can’t figure out how much I really need to eat and how much is too much. No wonder I felt safer being on a diet for so many years, with someone else to tell me what to eat and what not to eat. As long as they did the thinking for me, I didn’t have to listen to the thoughts in my own head around food, and even if I didn’t lose weight from those diets, at least I felt safer. From myself.

“Oy.”

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?