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On Loneliness

            Loneliness is a lifelong state of being for me. I was a lonely child, because I couldn’t share my world with anyone. I loved my big brother, but there were so many things he refused to hear, refused to say, refused to see. I loved my best friend, but she didn’t love me back. She tolerated me, she accepted my presence, but she didn’t understand me and didn’t want to. I thought that was my fault, by the way, because I wasn’t rich enough or pretty enough or clever enough, but, and this is something I’ve only recently figured out, it wasn’t about me; which doesn’t solve anything, or heal anything, for either of us, but it’s true.

            I loved my parents, but my mom was deep underwater, in an abusive marriage. And my father. Well. His idea of love was loyalty and control in only one direction. He was a bruised and broken child himself, who never healed, or ever tried to.

            I lived in this kaleidoscope of broken people, always moving around each other, never fitting together into a whole. And at school, even though the other kids didn’t know any of this, they knew. They knew that I bothered them, upset them, and scared them, just for being me: for being nice to people who hurt me; for helping people who looked down on me; for showing everything on my face that they were able to hide and thought should be hidden.

            I learned, over time, how to act like I was normal, or something like it. But there was still something too honest about me, and it hurt people to look at me, and so they hurt me, as if I’d done it on purpose; as if my sadness was an attack on their otherwise peaceful lives.

            I’ve worked hard to make connections with people, and to chisel away at the loneliness, but it is still there, and still informs everything I do. It makes me more desperate to have my say and to be heard; and it makes me more sensitive to the pain of others; and it makes me more frightened, of everyone, because I know how badly they can hurt me.

“I would never hurt you, Mommy.”

            In a way, isolation has been my way to protect myself from having to feel too much of the loneliness at once, because the feeling is most profound when I am closest to other people.

            I don’t know if any of this is true for other people, or for what percentage of other people. I know that some people use their loneliness to excuse acts of emotional and physical violence against others. I know that some people use loneliness to spur active and crowded lives. But most people don’t talk about their loneliness in public. Most people act as if they are fine; and even if I can imagine that there’s something behind the mask, I can’t presume to know what that is, and so my loneliness persists.

“I never hide my feelings behind a mask.”

            Loneliness is probably the echo underneath everything I write and everything I do – and it hurts, a lot. It doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t dissolve. It doesn’t disappear. There are other feelings that persist from my childhood, like shame and fear and guilt and physical pain, but loneliness is the most pervasive; it’s the one that follows me everywhere I go, even when I am otherwise happy and well.

            I don’t know why I wanted to write about this. Maybe because I’m starting to wonder if the loneliness will ever recede; and to wonder if I’m perpetuating the loneliness, even causing it, without any idea of how to stop.

            We have these ideas about healing – that it can be fast, and complete, and willed into fruition – but none of that tracks with my experience. Some wounds don’t heal, or fade, and sometimes we have to accept that our lives will always hold the shape of that pain.

I haven’t reached that level of acceptance, though. I still want the fairytale, with the happily ever after ending. I want, most of all, to be whole.

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 Shul Rat

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

I also liked that after services we could wander around the synagogue, until Mom got there, and it was like wandering through the White House without supervision. We’d sneak around and make it feel really mysterious and dramatic. The ceilings were high, and the setting was so formal, and everyone was quiet so as not to disturb the goings on in the main sanctuary. There was also something wonderful about having a community outside of my family, and a building to explore. My extended family was not next door, or down the block; we didn’t even have big family dinners more than once or twice a year, so the synagogue was my sense of family.

I liked the older people at shul. They weren’t always warm, but they paid attention and looked me in the eye. I felt like my best self there. At school I was a good student, but got teased constantly. At dance and gymnastics classes, I was barely keeping up and certainly not a star. At home…eh. But at shul, I mattered.

When I was seven, my father started to go to Saturday morning services regularly, and not long after that, my brother and I stopped going to afternoon activities and just stayed for the rest of the adult services with our father. The main sanctuary was a big deal. There was a high ceiling and stained glass windows, and tapestries on the walls, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I liked the smell of the prayer books, and the hard covers, and the golden type on the cover. I liked that I knew who was a regular and who was new. I liked having a set seat that I went to every time. I loved when the Torah reader, the mother of one of my brother’s good friends, would sing harmonies, and I could sing along with her, and learn from her.

 

USAKamSyn

My synagogue was not quite this grand, but I can dream.

For special occasions, like an engagement, bags of candy were made up and thrown onto the bima, and the kids ran up to get as much candy as they could reach. I never see this at my current synagogue. Maybe it’s been outlawed because someone could get hit, or someone could miss out on candy. Better to just have a table full of candy to choose from after the service, they think. Phooey.

bags of candy

Bags of candy! (not my picture)

After my father got involved in the synagogue, we started to go to Friday night services, which were a formal affair. Kids came with their parents, and the cantor sang his complex loops of song, and everyone dressed up.  After the service there was a sit down oneg (dessert and talk) in the social hall. Tables were set up in a u-shape, and tea and desserts were set out. There were always non-dairy brownies with chocolate frosting, and I always ate off the frosting and left the brownies behind. Then the rabbi would hit his teacup with his spoon to start the discussion, and the kids would rush out just in the nick of time. The rabbi resented this, and forced his own children to stay put, but the other adults seemed to understand that kids could not sit through a long and boring discussion so late at night, when there was a whole building to explore.

Sometimes we’d end up sitting in the dark, in the far reaches of the building, looking through the toys left out by the preschoolers, or telling ghost stories. Other times, we made up elaborate games that required running through the building, and hiding under benches in the small sanctuary, and even sneaking up onto the bima in the main sanctuary to see what the rabbi kept in his lectern.

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“Are there toys at shul?”

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“Or pizza?”

I would have loved to bring Cricket and Butterfly to shul with me, to run through the halls of the building and play tag and have an excuse to laugh and jump and not be so self-conscious. But I never struggled to feel “spiritual” at shul, it was just there, in the building, in the occasion, in me. I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.

Cricket would be more interested in searching for the left over bags of candy, but then I’m pretty sure God is in the candy too.

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“Candy?”

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“Candy!”

All Her Children

Butterfly is going to be nine years old this fall, but I almost feel like she was born last November when we brought her home from the shelter, because she’s doing all of her puppy learning now.

The almost birthday girl

The almost birthday girl

            Butterfly lived at a puppy mill, for eight years, and when she first came home, she was still swollen from her last litter, and stunned. She picked up a yellow stuffed duck that Cricket had given up on, a duck that quacked, and carried it in her mouth. When she was tired, she would sit on the floor and lick the duck. She wasn’t chewing it, or de-stuffing it, the way Cricket would have done; she was taking care of it, and giving it a bath, a really ineffective bath that turned Ducky’s yellow fur grey within two days, but a bath none the less.

Butterfly carrying her Ducky

Butterfly carrying her Ducky

            For months, Butterfly walked around the apartment with one or the other of her stuffed toys in her mouth, carrying them with her for walks, setting them gently on the grass to rest while she took care of her business. There was Fishy, and Froggy, and Platypus, and, of course, Ducky.

Butterfly with some of her toys.

Butterfly with some of her toys.

            Somewhere along the way, Butterfly moved on to wanting to chew things. She didn’t want to chew and destroy her stuffed toys, so she left them in every corner of the apartment and focused her attention on rawhide chewies, and if she couldn’t get her paws on one of those, she would settle for the closest book, magazine, or notebook, currently in use.

Chewing with an audience

Chewing with an audience

            I’ve been watching Butterfly move through these stages of puppy development, at her own pace, in the ways that feel natural to her, and I feel inspired by it. I’ve been told, often, that you only get one shot at your childhood, and if you miss out, too bad. But Butterfly is showing me how untrue that is. If you missed important stages of development the first time around, all you need is a safe place and love, and you can get that learning done, at whatever age you happen to be, at whatever pace you can manage.

            Over time, I think, Butterfly has traded in her attachment to her stuffed toys for an attachment to Cricket, and me, and Mom. She licks my arm the way she used to lick Ducky, leaving a thick residue of saliva that I choose to think of as a protective coating.

The girls are conserving there energy, and using their mind control powers on me

The girls are conserving their energy, and using their mind control powers on me

She hasn’t completely given up on her Ducky, though. In times of stress, she still cuddles up with platypus, or carries Fishy in her mouth, or squeezes Ducky’s belly to make him quack.

And, every once in a while, I find Fishy waiting for me outside the bathroom door, or Froggy staring up at me from Butterfly’s bed next to the computer, and I know that she has left her friend to keep an eye on me, while she goes to find something to chew on. And I feel loved.

Butterfly, sleeping on fishy.

Butterfly, sleeping on fishy.