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The Paw Paw Flowers

 

About twelve years ago, I bought a box of paw paws. I had to order them from Ohio, during the fruit’s very short season in September, and commit to eating most of them myself, because they were a bit too funny looking and odd smelling to share (believe me, I tried).

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Paw paws (this is not my picture)

Someone had told me about paw paws, waxed rhapsodic about their sweetness, made endless metaphors out of their shape and elusiveness and the speed with which they turn black and rot. I wanted to like these damned things, but at the same time I was angry at them, for being so much more interesting, to him, than I would ever be.

Of course it’s all about heartbreak. Why else would a fruit that barely has a season capture my imagination so thoroughly that I had to order a whole damned box of them from Ohio?

They arrived, wrapped individually in newspaper, because they are so fragile and easily bruised. Like me? Like him? The metaphor never ends. They are filled with a row of almond shaped seeds that you have to dig out or suck on to get the flesh that clings stubbornly to them. And the fruit has to be eaten with a spoon. You can’t peel it like an orange, or slice it like an apple, or bite straight into it like a strawberry. It’s work. And it’s messy. And it is sweet and custardy and sort of tastes like peaches and bananas and mangoes and vanilla have been tossed together into a blender.

paw paw seeds

(Also not my picture)

I saved the seeds in the freezer, like the instructions in the box told me to do (because paw paw growers are by their very nature proselytizers), and then, sometime in late winter, when it wasn’t really warming up yet, I planted the seeds in big pots in the kitchen, and set them by the window sill, and watched. The pots needed protection from the lingering cold, so I wrapped them in scarves. And then, like the Talmudic sages said the angels do for every seed, I stood over the pots and whispered, “Grow, grow.”

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My dancing paw paws!

The seedlings were tall and full of personality and five or six of them even survived long enough to be planted outdoors once the weather was warm enough. We kept them in their pots at first, though, so that they could come back inside if they needed to.

Three, maybe four, survived the first year and grew into little trees. Three trees came with us when we moved here five years later. One suffered a horrible gardening accident, but two lived, and settled into their new surroundings and continued to grow. They got taller and taller, their trunks started to thicken, their leaves extended out like shiny green fans and then paled to yellow in the fall, and disappeared for the winter, and reappeared in the spring. They kept getting taller, and healthier, but there was no fruit yet, not even a flower.

We got impatient and ordered two new baby trees, because a New York State expert in paw paws said we needed to have at least two trees in close proximity in order for fertilization to occur, and the two we had were too far apart.

But the baby trees we bought were crushed in the shipping process and never really recovered, though we watched over them hopefully for a season. And then last summer, after the baby trees had given up completely, my two stalwart twelve year old trees, that have been with me since they were just almond shaped seeds buried in the dirt, flowered.

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The flowers were small, and a deep burgundy brown color. And pretty quickly the flowers dried up and flew away, and the leaves turned yellow again and the trees went to sleep again for another winter.

And this year, the flowers are bigger and brighter, and there are more of them, and they are filled with enough powdery, sticky pollen that we were able to transfer it from the flowers of one tree to the flowers of the other, by Q-tip.

I don’t know what will happen next. The trees aren’t especially muscular, and even if the fruit appears, the branches may not be up to holding the weight of it yet. But maybe soon. Maybe there will be paw paws in my backyard someday soon.

 

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Paw paw standing tall

Twelve years seems too long to wait for a piece of fruit, I know. But maybe the wait is the point. The patience, the slow growth. I mean, the metaphor works. The comparison to me, and turtle-slow growth is obvious. Maybe me and my paw paw trees will find our strength and come to fruition at the same time.

You never know.

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The girls are waiting.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

From the Earth to the Moon

Mom and I left my childhood home when I was twenty-three-years-old. She was in the process of divorcing my father, but he didn’t plan to leave the house. Mom’s lawyer wanted her to stay in the house until the divorce was final, to avoid any penalty for “abandonment,” but I was clearly struggling. I’d finished college, but I couldn’t figure out how to move forward in any direction. My therapist spoke to Mom’s lawyer and said something along the lines of, if she stays she will die, so we left.

We had to find a place to live that we could afford, and that would accept Dina, our then eight-year-old black Lab mix. Mom had to get a new job in the city to afford the move, and I had to be on disability, because I really couldn’t function, and money had to come from somewhere, and it was not going to come from my father.

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Dina, at the old house

 

Mom was scared, but I was paralyzed. I don’t think anyone other than Mom really understood that, at the time. Even my therapist thought I should be able to do more, or at least she told me I could, maybe to push me.

It was all humiliating and terrifying and confusing. I had lived in the same house for twenty-three years, seeing my father every day, and suddenly I was living somewhere new and never seeing my father at all. I thought he might try to call, or write, or even stalk me, but he didn’t. I could hear his voice calling up the stairs in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t real, just a hallucination.

We found a half a house to rent, where Mom could use the front yard to plant whatever she wanted. That was her way of healing. Mine was watching TV. I would break up my day with television shows, forcing myself to write until one show came on, and then exercise until the next one, and then walk Dina, and make dinner, all on my TV schedule.

 

I wasn’t in school, I didn’t have a job, but I went to therapy twice a week and spent hours every day writing through all of the pain – picking apart my dreams, going through my memories from each year of my life, trying to excavate each molecule of pain and confusion so that I could find a way forward. It was, in its way, a full time job.

My one blissful escape was a miniseries that started to air on HBO as soon as we moved into the apartment, on Sunday nights, called From the Earth to the Moon, starring and co-produced by Tom Hanks. It told the story of the Apollo program at NASA in the 1960’s and 70’s (I had remembered Steven Spielberg as being a part of it, but Wikipedia says I was wrong). I thought of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as my two ideal dads. I was always looking for good fathers, my whole life, and I needed them extra at that moment.

from the earth to the moon

The analogy of striking out from the solid ground of earth out to the unknown of the moon resonated with my situation. I had to believe there was something out there, something worth finding. I was out in the middle of space, with so few landmarks to tell me where to go, and there was Tom Hanks, experiencing the same things. And succeeding.

I’d never been much of a space or science nerd, though Star Wars was an important touchstone for me, and I’d never thought much about the moon or astronauts or NASA. I didn’t want to be a daredevil pilot, or an engineer, or a scientist, and I wasn’t fascinated by space shuttles or computers. But I watched each episode and absorbed the sense of wonder that came through the TV screen. It was such a relief to spend time with people who believed in the future and the next small step forward. For a little while, each Sunday night, I felt like I was living on their life support machine, and it was enough to get me through. It was just enough.

As the weeks passed, I learned small things, like how to breathe in the smell of honey in the air when I walked Dina around our new neighborhood; how to smile at the librarian when she smiled at me as I checked out books at my new library. Every lesson was a small step, sometimes invisible even to me, but it was enough to keep me going, even when I didn’t think I could ever leave the apartment, or answer the phone, or talk to a stranger.

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Me and Dina walking by the water

I knew that people would not understand what was wrong with me, because I kept hearing people say that I wasn’t trying hard enough, and that I could do more if I weren’t so selfish and lazy. If only my mom would expect more of me; if only I would pull myself up by my bootstraps, if only I would lower my expectations, I would be alright. But they were wrong. I was doing what I could do.

The shame I felt, being twenty three and non-functional, was overwhelming. I’d already felt awful for not graduating from college until I was twenty two, because I had dropped out of two or three schools before I was able to stick to one for four years. But shame was a lifelong thing for me, and it just shape-shifted to fit whatever I thought was wrong with me at the time.

Dina and I were a good pair, because she had all kinds of fears too. She had severe separation anxiety, and fear of small children and most moving objects. She’d had false pregnancies on a regular basis until we left my father’s house and finally had her spayed (my father wouldn’t allow it). The two of us took long, exhausting walks up and down the hills of our new neighborhood, and then huddled together indoors for mutual support. We even walked to therapy together, maybe three miles, so that we could each work through our own issues. She ended up living to sixteen years and two months old, incredible for a dog of her size, and with her long list of psychological disorders, and it gave me hope. The moon is still out there, waiting for me, and you never know, I might reach it one day.

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Dina, later in her life, and happier

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

Language Junky

I am a multiple language learning addict, not to be confused with a multiple language speaker, which I’m really not. At least not yet. I keep wanting to add more languages to my Duolingo account, like: Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, etc. But I’ve tried to keep a lid on it and stick to the four I’m already working on (French, Hebrew, Spanish, and German), so that I can, maybe, get somewhere.

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Ellie is skeptical

My anxiety about speaking out loud is a big part of my problem. I get too self-conscious, and worry about making mistakes. It’s also possible, maybe, that studying four languages at a time is a problem, but I can’t help it! I have no self-control!

When I heard that Pete Buttigieg, “Mayor Pete,” speaks seven languages, and then also did a short video in American Sign Language, I felt like a horrible underachiever. I have no interest in joining the military, or being a mayor, or running for President, but being a polyglot would fill me with joy! I could read Harry Potter in every language!!!!!

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“No more Harry Potter!”

I’ve been excusing my endless hours on Duolingo as possibly for the benefit of my future career, because, you now, social workers should understand a lot of different people. That’s why I started to learn Spanish in the first place, because I had to communicate with a client who only spoke Spanish and hand gestures were not getting me very far. And, you never know, maybe I’ll come across someone who speaks French or German or Hebrew and get a chance to use my limited skills in those languages professionally as well, some day.

But, to be honest, I’m not really doing it for my job. If I were really taking it seriously as something to add to my resume, I would force myself to take in-person classes, and practice conversation, and even go to an immersion program. But that would be scary and full of pressure. And Duolingo is fun, and relaxing.

My synagogue is planning a trip to Israel next year, with a side trip to Berlin at the beginning, and an after trip to Jordan. Of course I can’t afford to go, and I’ll probably have a job by then and won’t have time to go, but it has captured my imagination.

I’ve heard a lot about the beauty of Petra, in Jordan, but that’s not really my focus. I need to go to Israel. I’ve never been there and it feels important to breathe the air and see the streets for myself. But, I want to go to Berlin. I’ve been studying German for a little while now. The original idea was to learn enough German to be able to learn Yiddish, but along the way the harsh sounds of German have been prickling my brain and trying to tell me secrets I can’t quite hear yet; about the Holocaust, definitely, but also about the German Jews who were so thoroughly German that they couldn’t imagine what was coming, couldn’t imagine being demonized and tortured and killed by their fellow countrymen. I recognize the long, slow, period of disbelief that we spend most of our lives marinating in, not quite seeing what’s really going on around us, because we just don’t want to believe that awful things can happen.

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“I always believe awful things can happen.”

Israel is a harder trip for me, because it’s so loaded with mixed feelings: the heat; the daily potential for violence; the existential crisis; the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox and the Secular Jews; the chockablock spiritual places stuffed into one small country; the language, and the guilt I feel at still not being fluent after so many years of trying; the fear that I will feel alien even there, where I am supposed to feel, finally, at home.

I want to go with my congregation and hear what they are thinking, and feel known and visible. I want to see my best friend from high school in her natural habitat. She and her daughter have started learning Italian (not one of my languages) so I may have to add just that one more language to my Duolingo account.

I know I’m not going on this trip, and yet I think of it every day while I do my language practice, and I imagine being in Berlin and hearing German all around me, and being in Israel and trying to force myself to speak Hebrew. Both places seem full of memories for me and yet I’ve never been to either. But I couldn’t leave Mom and the girls behind for ten days, spending money we don’t have, and looking for some way to stop in Mexico or Spain to practice my Spanish, with a stopover in Paris to work on my French. It’s not going to happen, and yet, in my mind, it happens every day.

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“That sounds exhausting.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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 Opioid Epidemic

 

Recently, the media has been filled with glee around the guilt of the Sackler family (Purdue Pharma) in the origins of the Opioid Epidemic. I have no interest in arguing on their behalf, because the avarice and lack of compassion in their decisions is obvious and really not up for debate. But it interested me that they were singled out, and that the media was willing to simplify the whole epidemic down to the choices of one, rich, Jewish family. I am sensitive to the specter of anti-Semitism, because of the endless role it has played in history, and this struck me as worth examining.

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“Are you sure we need to discuss this?”

The Sackler family is responsible for OxyContin, one of the opiates that flooded the market in the nineties, and they attempted to downplay the risks of addiction in their marketing campaigns and ignored misuses of their drugs in favor of making an enormous amount of money, but they could have accomplished none of this on their own. Doctors, who knew that opiates were addictive (Morphine has been around for a long time, Opium for much longer), over-prescribed these medications, and some even made an illegal business out of the underground market for opiates (though most did not). Pharmacies and distributors bought larger amounts of opiates than could ever be used responsibly, knowing they were feeding addiction and illegal markets and doing it anyway. We, as a society, defunded and underfunded addiction treatment, ignoring and demonizing substance abusers so that they could not find a way out, even if they’d wanted to. Families ignored, friends ignored, schools ignored, government ignored, and the FDA approved more and more variations of opiates for the marketplace.

It’s also important to recognize that the Opioid Epidemic has become national and world news in the last few years largely because of the rise of Fentanyl, and then Carfentanyl, both of which are more lethal than Heroin, and have led to many overdose deaths. And Fentanyl has nothing to do with the Sacklers. It’s also important to see that when people of color were losing the war against drugs we didn’t call it an epidemic, instead we blamed the addicts themselves for their problems. This time it is young white people who have been dying, and that seems to have made a difference in the coverage.

Another big difference for the current epidemic is the growth of social media, and technology in general. In the past, a teenager might have had to drive forty minutes to the bad side of town to buy drugs. Now, with a text, you can have anything brought to you in ten minutes. Anything. You don’t have to go to the bad part of town, or spend a lot of money; sometimes all you have to do is open the medicine cabinet in your friend’s house. If we are having an opioid epidemic, then we are having a Benzodiazepine and Marijuana Tsunami, with an alcohol chaser. Vapes, which are everywhere now, can easily be adapted for use with all kinds of different, hard, drugs, and used out in the open. In middle school.

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“You can’t take my Benzos!”

The question is, why did this happen? Why were we so eager to believe the lie that opiates could be made non-addictive? Or that addiction is a small price to pay for pain relief? Or that the market can be trusted to make moral decisions?

This is our culture. American culture. The Sacklers were certainly not acting on Jewish law and morality in their decision making; they were, actually, following the prevailing American value that money is good, and drugs are good, and let’s not think too hard about the downsides, or address the complexities, or look at the people who are struggling, because, really, it’s their own fault if they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

There are reasons other than Anti-Semitism to explain the hatred and blame of the Sackler family in particular. One, there was a recent document release from their trial, and the information in it was really juicy and obnoxious and therefore caught people’s attention. Even more important, a lot of Americans recognized in the Sacklers a stand-in for the Trumps, and there is great satisfaction in seeing a similarly rich, and corrupt, family being brought down.

But their Jewishness made me nervous. It’s always scary for me to see a Jewish person in the news for criminal, immoral, or unjust behavior – not just because what they did is upsetting, but also because of my fear that their crimes will be used against the whole of the Jewish people. The Holocaust is not as far in the past as some people would like to believe, and we’re seeing an upsurge in anti-Semitism everywhere.

I still don’t know if anti-Semitism played any role in the coverage of this. The origins of the Opioid Epidemic are complex and interwoven and need to be addressed from multiple directions. Simplifying it all down to the greed of one company, and one family, felt good for a moment, because it made us feel like we finally had a handle on what happened. But the epidemic is still happening. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to change our laws and policies and culture, in order to prevent more overdose deaths and lives lost to addiction in all kinds of ways. We want to blame someone, like the Sacklers, or Central American migrants, or corrupt doctors, because we want it to be someone else’s fault, and therefore someone else’s responsibility to fix. But that won’t work. This is our problem, and it belongs to all of us.

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“Is she serious, Ellie? This is so not my fault.”

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“Just pretend to be sleeping, Cricket. It always works for me.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

Ellie, the Love Bug

 

The other day, when I was driving home from the drug store, the front of my left foot started to cramp out of nowhere. It didn’t impact my driving, but stretching my toes didn’t help, and even the walk back up to the apartment didn’t make it go away completely. The pain was just annoying enough to make me wonder what I might have done to cause my foot to cramp. Was I doing ballet in my sleep? Have I been pointing and flexing my toes without realizing it?

As soon as I got inside, the dogs were desperate to get outside, so Mom and I leashed them up and followed them out the door. I wasn’t watching the dogs closely, because I was too preoccupied with my own thoughts, about ballet and such, but then Mom pointed out that Ellie was limping and I looked up in time to see Ellie hopping around and then flexing her leg back into an arabesque – her left rear leg. The same foot that was bothering me.

I picked her up and touched her paw, to see if she had something caught between the pads (because Butterfly used to get pieces of kibble stuck in her paw on a regular basis), but there was nothing obvious there. Ellie gave a little shriek when I touched her toes, though, and pulled her foot away. I put her back down on the ground and she proceeded to run, hop, stretch, run, and jump in quick succession. She stretched her left leg back in the arabesque position a few more times but then she put her foot down with her full weight on it. She wasn’t crying as she walked on it, so I left her to finish her dancing and peeing and then led both dogs back into the apartment.

Once inside I figured I could get a better look at her foot if I was sitting down on the couch. Thank God it wasn’t Cricket, because she would have ripped off my hand before letting me touch her foot. Ellie is much more trusting, or at least tolerant. I held Ellie in my lap and picked up her left rear paw to examine it more closely, and that’s when I saw the blood. Some of the blood had rubbed off on the top of her right rear paw, but the wound was clearly localized on the left paw. Mom brought out a damp wash cloth to dab the blood away so I could see what might have caused the injury. I worried that one of her paw pads had gotten cut, or that she had glass in her paw, and I started to catastrophize and plan ahead to calling the vet for an emergency appointment and… Mom calmed me down and continued to dab the paw until I could see more clearly. There was no obvious cut, and I couldn’t see any foreign objects, no glass, or pebbles, or needles, or anything else. Mom found a piece of sterile gauze in the medicine cabinet and managed to wrap it around the top of Ellie’s foot and tie a little knot. Then she suggested that we wait and see if the wound was still bothering Ellie after an hour or two, because Ellie wouldn’t thank me for dragging her to the vet just for a scratch that could easily heal on its own.

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“Can I have my paw back, please?”

And mom was right: the bandage came off quickly, and the bleeding stopped even quicker than that. Within an hour, Ellie was back to her usual cheerful self, with no sign of an injury. I kept an eye out for the rest of the day for any possible delayed reactions – severed ligaments, swollen ankles, blood, tumors, etc. – but she was fine.

Which left me time to contemplate the weirdness: why did I have that random pain in my foot right before Ellie had an injury in the same freaking foot? Is this some new form of ESP that psychics forgot to mention? Am I the dog mommy of the year – literally able to feel my baby’s pain? Or was it just a silly coincidence that I should ignore, and maybe make sure to do my foot and leg stretches more regularly?

I have no idea. I prefer the magical explanation (for everything), so I tend to over-compensate and be very skeptical of magical explanations, and try hard to find a rational explanation instead. And there’s always a rational explanation available. But…

I think we are all connected, and I think love connects us on an even deeper, more unfathomable level. And I think, maybe, that this was a sign that Ellie and I have found our wavelength, not just because I happened to be lucky enough to be on a call list when Ellie needed a home; not just because she’s cute and lovable in a generic way; but because we’ve done the work to get to know each other.

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Cricket has her very own wavelength.

Ellie has become more and more of her own self over time, sleeping flat on her back with her legs in the air, speaking with her own voice (louder and louder as time passes), and running with her own unimaginable joy as she tries to chase the mourning doves as they escape up into the trees. She is a love bug, burying her head under my chin, leaping up for scratches and hugs when we’re out on a walk, following me everywhere (but especially to the kitchen). She loves me, she loves her Grandma, and she even loves Cricket, who sort of, maybe, tolerates her in return.

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This doesn’t look comfortable to me, but Ellie loves it.

I’m not saying that I want this connection to continue to express itself in foot pain, in fact, I’d rather it find a nicer vocabulary in the future. But it means something, at least to me.

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“We don’t believe in this…stuff.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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 Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

 

In order to have a successful life, it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be able to function, every day, without having three panic attacks before lunch. I was certain that, twenty-five years into therapy, I would be married, with children, and published multiple times. I wouldn’t have made it through the first ten years of therapy if I’d known that I’d still be struggling with forward motion in year twenty five. But this is where I’m at, and this is the best I’ve been able to do, despite all of that promise, because of childhood sexual abuse.

I was the kid that teachers loved and never worried about. Rachel will do fine at whatever she chooses to do. Rachel is smart and responsible and hardworking and never needs help. They didn’t consider my social anxiety, or crippling depression, or the endless fragmentation of my mind as a problem, because even with all of that I still did well at school. But I didn’t want to, and that was the killer. I did not want to wake up each morning. I did not want to meet new people, or go to parties, or get a job, or choose a major, or whatever each next step was supposed to be.

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“This is a difficult topic, Mommy.”

 

I am tired of hearing about how resilient everyone else is, and how well they’re doing, despite this and that and the other thing. It implies that we all had the same obstacles and everyone else is just better than me at overcoming them. But the fact is, if I had the same life experiences as I’ve had, without the great good fortune of intelligence and talent, and a Mom who loves me, and a therapist who has been there for me since I was nineteen, I would not be here. I would have walked in front of a bus, or swallowed a bottle of pills, a hundred times by now. It’s important to know that, and not to be smug about my successes, and not to be so quick to judge others for their lack of success.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

The percentage of substance abusers with child abuse histories is very high, same with prison inmates, and patients in mental hospitals, but I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things. We choose to ignore our good fortune when we have it, and we choose to take credit for all of our successes, despite the help we’ve received along the way. We imagine that people are successful because of their intelligence and hard work alone, and therefore those who are unsuccessful must be lazy and stupid.

Lately we’ve been talking more about privilege – white privilege, male privilege – but we forget the less obvious forms of privilege; being safe in your own home, and being loved and nurtured by your family, and having the support you need when you have to face big and small challenges along the way, are huge privileges that many children never experience.

I remember watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when she would celebrate kids who had survived war and starvation and abuse and got into Harvard anyway, or started a successful business, or saved the world in some way. And it made me angry, one, because I could never do any of that, and two, because most of the kids who went through those same circumstances wouldn’t be able to impress anyone and win the attention and rewards they would need in order to survive. They would have the same residue of pain and trauma, without any help to get them through, or anyone to celebrate their small achievements along the way.

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“I love to celebrate!”

Everyone wants to know the secrets of the resilient child, but resilience has more to do with how we take care of and support these children than with their own inherent qualities. Their strength, or weakness, comes mostly from us. If they fail, it’s because we didn’t hold them up. We keep forgetting this. We want to celebrate, and vilify, the individual, if only so that we don’t have to take responsibility for each other. But it’s an illusion. We are intertwined whether we acknowledge it or not, and we pay the price for the suffering of others, whether we caused it ourselves or simply chose to ignore it.

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Platypus knows that we all need help.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

 

Walking the Labyrinth

 

A week ago Tuesday, I went for my social work licensing exam at a nondescript office on Long Island. I was anxious about the exam because it covered a lot of ground (three and a half years of classes, plus whatever else a social worker might need to know), and because the style of questioning is meant to be tricky and confusing. But I had spent months studying and preparing, and I generally do well on tests, so I was managing the anxiety okay. And then I reached the office building and had to find a parking spot. The building I was looking for was in a large complex of office buildings, and even though I’ve been in that area before, I’d never been to that particular building before. When I did my practice drive a week earlier there was a free spot right in front of the building, so I was unprepared for contingencies, like all of the unreserved spots being taken and having to find the underground lot.

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“That doesn’t sound good, Mommy.”

I had no idea where the entrance to the underground parking was, and, at first, I ended up in the underground lot for a different building. After wandering around blind corners for quite a while, and finally finding an exit back to the above ground world, I was tempted to just park in one of the reserved spots and risk being towed. But then I balked. I really don’t want to be towed. Or ticketed. Or have to find an alternative way to get back home (I do not have the uber app, or anything like it, on my phone, nor do I have any idea how one might use it). So, with ten minutes left before I was supposed to be at the exam, I went searching for the entrance to the right underground parking lot, and finally found it. Most of the spots underground were reserved for companies in that building as well, but I found a spot on the lower level that was magically free and unmarked. There were no numbers for the spots, or for different sections of the lot, and I didn’t even see a sign for which level I was on, but I had five minutes to get upstairs so I couldn’t worry about that, yet. I found a stairway up to the ground level, and then another to the second floor office suite where I would take the exam, and I made it with one minute to spare.

Phew.

The pre-test procedures were complex and unnerving: five or six palm scans, two forms of ID, an awkward photo, putting my cell phone into a plastic bag that would have to be cut open at the end of the test, and relinquishing everything except for my ID and my glasses to a locker. I couldn’t even bring my own tissues, or sucking candies (too loud). Then I had to go to a second staff member for more safety procedures: another palm scan, checking my glasses for tech, checking my pockets, and the tips of my ears; I had to push up my sleeves and pat down my pant legs to prove nothing was hiding there either.

Finally I was allowed into the testing room, with my locker key, and my ID for company. I couldn’t make any noise, and I would have to raise my hand if I needed to get up for any reason, which they preferred I not do until I’d finished the exam.

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“No wee wee pad?”

The test was one hundred and seventy questions, and, with the tutorial at the beginning and the survey at the end, took me an hour and a half. I spent half the time stretching and shifting and trying to get comfortable in the supposedly ergonomic chair and staring at the blurry computer screen (Allergies? Anxiety? Stroke?). About two thirds of the way through the test I started to worry that I might fail and have to sit through the horror all over again, but as soon as the final survey was finished (Did you enjoy this test? How was the drive? Did you really need those tissues?), the screen changed and told me that I had passed the licensing exam. The drama was over. I raised my hand to be allowed out and they gave me a print out of my score and wished me well, and sent me to empty out my locker and walk out into freedom. Okay, not freedom exactly, because passing the test meant that I would have to start the job search, which was a crushing weight quickly descending on my head, but, you know, free for the rest of the day.

I called home to let Mom and the dogs know that I’d passed, and survived, and suffered mightily, and then went in search of my car.

 

Except, the route I’d taken up into the building was closed to me in the opposite direction. The actual door that had opened into the building had no handle going the opposite direction, and I didn’t see any other doors nearby. So I went looking for another set of stairs, and went down two levels, and started to look for my car. I didn’t see anything familiar, but I hadn’t paid close attention in the first place, so I wasn’t worried, at first. I walked around the whole floor three times, getting more and more anxious. I called home and got so far as telling Mom that I was lost underground and couldn’t find my way out, when the phone cut off.

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“Uh oh.”

So I did the only thing I could think of and retraced my steps up into the building. My legs were starting to wobble with exhaustion, and my neck and back were still hurting from the hour and a half at the computer, but panic carries a lot of adrenaline, and I was moving pretty fast. I tried another route back down into the parking garage and wandered the floor two more times, nothing.

I went back upstairs, and looked for signs I might have missed, and doors I might not have opened, afraid that my car had been towed, or stolen. Eventually, I tried a different floor of the parking garage. I was sure I’d parked two levels below the ground floor, but I was desperate, so I tried going down only one floor. Suddenly there was a sign that looked vaguely familiar, so I kept walking, and walking, and walking, and there it was! My car!!!! Just waiting there for me, not towed away or stolen or made invisible by aliens trying to mess with my head.

 

I called home immediately and Ellie barked at me, trying to tell me that I had been gone way too long. I felt like a truck was sitting on my back, but at least I wasn’t lost anymore. Mom promised a special celebratory dinner, but I warned her that I could still get lost trying to drive out of the underground labyrinth. But at least wandering in circles in the car took less time than wandering on foot, and I finally made my way out into the sunlight, and on my way home.

I was shaking with leftover tension, but able to drive home safely and get my greeting from the girls and from Mom and eat some dinner. The exam was over, and successful. The trauma of the day was over. But, I didn’t feel any relief. I felt like I was still stuck in that underground lot, with no clear signs telling me where to go or what to do. Even safe at home, with the girls sleeping next to me, I still felt like I was walking that endless labyrinth, and I realized how familiar that feeling has become for me.

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“We’re sleeping, Mommy. The story is over.”

I feel like every step forward in my life has been a step into the dark, with no clear signage, and no certainty that I’m even looking in the right place. Even when I can find clear milestone markers, like graduation, or a passed exam, I still don’t feel a sense of relief, because I don’t know which road to turn onto next.

I wish I could say something reassuring here, about how, eventually, I always find my next step on solid ground, but that’s just not true. What feels like solid ground to someone else doesn’t necessarily feel right or solid to me.

The next step is to send out resumes and tap into any contacts I may have, and network (eek!) to find a good first social work job. Hopefully the labyrinth will be more clearly marked in the future, or else I’ll have to bring Cricket with me on job searches, so she can warn me when I’m going in the wrong direction. Or at least let me know when I’m getting closer to snacks.

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“I’m great at finding snacks. It’s true.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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.