RSS Feed

Tag Archives: writing

Jury Duty

            When I first received a jury questionnaire in the mail, back in the spring, I wrote in the space provided about my various health issues and why it would be difficult for me to manage a full day of jury duty, let alone several days of a trial, and asked to be excused. When I didn’t hear back from them with a request for more information, I thought I’d done enough to be let off the hook. But the jury summons came anyway, on the same day that I’d gotten clearance from the Pulmonologist for my oral surgery, and the summons was dated for the week of the surgery itself.

“Oh, come on, people!”

I was able to postpone the summons for a few weeks, but I didn’t even try to get out of it completely; partly because I felt guilty trying to get out of jury duty, and partly because I didn’t want to go through the humiliation of trying to prove to my doctor that my disabilities are significant. I’d gotten out of jury duty a while back with a doctor’s note, when they were going to send me to Brooklyn (an hour and a half trip each way, by train, in the summer), but I had a doctor I trusted back then, and I knew for sure that I wouldn’t have been able to handle that trip, no matter how hard I’d tried. But this time, it was different, or I kept thinking it was.

            I told myself that I’d only have to drive twenty minutes each way, because the court complex is nearby, and I knew the route, and even if the weather was disgusting, I’d be inside most of the time, and sitting. And then my surgery was postponed too, with jury duty coming first instead of second, so I really didn’t see any way out of it.

            One of the more stressful things about jury duty, in my area at least, is that instead of being told to come in on a specific day, you are put on call for a week, meaning that every day at five o’clock you have to check the website to see if your number has been called for the following day. But I was lucky, this time, because when I checked the website the Friday before my summons week, I found out that I was being called for Monday, which meant I had the whole weekend to prepare: do the food shopping and the laundry, take extra naps, fill up my book bag with all of the things I’d need, and thank god I didn’t have to wait until five o’clock each day, for the rest of the week, to find out if I’d have to go in the next morning.

“But who’s gonna take me out to pee?!”

            I feel like I should be one of the people who is actively interested in every part of the justice system, and in doing my civic duty, and I keep thinking that I should use jury duty as a way to research future novels and learn about police procedure and all that. And, beyond that, I feel like jury duty is an obligation, like voting, and I don’t want to be one of the people who lies to get out of jury duty and then laughs about how juries are all made up of the stupid people who can’t get out of it. But I don’t have much energy, and I have a lot of social anxiety issues that make things like this ten times harder than they should be, and, whenever I’m near a police officer or inside of a court building, I think I’m going to be arrested.

            My mom has only been called for jury duty once in her life, and, so far, I’ve been called five or six times. I don’t know how I got so lucky. The first time I’d just graduated from college, and I was really nervous, but also kind of excited. I went through the voir dire, where the lawyers ask potential jurors all kinds of questions to see if they’ll be a good juror for the case, and when they asked if I’d ever been the victim of a crime, I had to say, uh, yeah, and the guilty party got away with it. I thought about saying no, just to see what it would be like to be chosen for a jury, but I’m not a good liar. Another time, I vaguely remember that we were given damp sandwiches and bused to another location that looked like a repurposed elementary school, but I was scratched, again, when they got to the victim-of-a-crime question. There was another time when I had to call in each day, for a week, to find out if they needed me, and they never did. That was probably the worst.

“Waiting sucks.”

            Even during my short stints at jury duty, though, it’s become clear that the lawyers just aren’t as interesting as the ones on TV, and the cases aren’t as dramatic or convoluted, and there’s almost never a twist ending, which is just disappointing. Instead it’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. If only I could bring one of the dogs with me for company – though there’s a very good chance that Cricket would get me arrested.

            I should have asked for a doctor’s note, because I’m just so tired all the time, and because Mom was still recovering from her second hip surgery, and because the dogs needed me, and because I needed to keep the apartment relatively livable, but I was too chicken. So I went.

            I packed diligently: phone, phone charger, jury summons, extra mask, book to read for fun, book to read for serious, notebooks and pens, oatmeal in a thermos (with a spoon), gingerale (in case of nausea caused by anxiety), and wet wipes.

            I got to the courthouse a few minutes early and found a seat in a corner of the central jury room, which was, thankfully, well air-conditioned and big enough to leave room for social distancing. Most people wore face masks, even though we were allowed to show our vaccination cards to get out of it, and after a little while of sitting there and staring around the room at each other, we watched a few videos: about jury service in New York and about implicit bias (how we fill in a picture when it is incomplete, based on assumptions that may not be true). And then we waited. A bunch of names were called while I played with my phone: sent an email and a text, did some water sorting and some Duolingo. And then we waited some more. I finished reading my book-for-fun (Rhys Bowen’s God Rest Ye Royal Gentlemen) and another group of names were called, and then we waited again. My phone was running out of power, but I was too scared to go wandering around looking for a place to charge it, so I got some writing done, and read some of the serious book (Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God), and then some more names were called and then we waited again. It was getting close to lunch time by then, and my neck and back hurt, and I was wondering if we would be sent to a cafeteria or let out for the hour and a half for lunch, and wishing I could go home and take a nap. And then my name was called. A whole group of us were led into a smaller, less well air-conditioned room, and I was really worried that we would be sent to do a voir dire right away and miss our lunch break altogether, and my headache would keep getting worse and I’d end up crying, or yelling at someone, or getting myself arrested, somehow. And then a non-descript man came into the room with a big pile of papers and told us that the rest of the cases for the day had been settled, and we would be going home early. There were quite a few hoots and hollers and Praise Gods and then we were called up one by one to get our printed sheet confirming that we had completed our jury service. And that was it.

            It had rained at some point while we were deep inside the court building, far from any windows, but the air outside still felt wet and thick as I walked across the street to my hot car, but…I was free!

            But even as I was driving home, hours earlier than expected, I wasn’t quite able to process what had happened. Time had slowed down so thoroughly in that big, isolated, jury room, with all of the empty spaces filled with anxiety about what might happen next, and not trusting myself to know how to answer the lawyers’ questions if I was called in to try out for jury and worried I would end up on a five week trial because I was too scared to say no. And then, suddenly, I was free, and I was still awake and aware enough to drive home without needing to pull over to rest, and even though I was a little bit shaky with fatigue, I was actually okay.

            And then I was home. Mom and the dogs met me at the door and I was able to take a nap in my own room, with puppies for company, and eat whatever I wanted to eat instead of whatever I could fit into a thermos. It wasn’t the easiest day of the summer, but it wasn’t the hardest one either, after all. All summer long there’s been one challenge after another, and even if it hasn’t been easy, each challenge has been met, somehow. And even though I’d much rather not be in survival mode endlessly, it’s good to know that if I need to survive, I can do it. I just hope I won’t get another jury summons too soon, and Mom won’t need another new hip for a while, and things will start to calm down a little bit.

But…I’m not holding my breath.

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?

Reading Donna Leon

            Lately I’ve been reading Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti books: police procedurals set in Venice, Italy. She is a master of place: the specifics of transportation, and weather, and neighborhood cultures that change every few streets. And she’s a master at the bureaucracies and corruption and duplicities her characters have to deal with, and the ways they try to manage to do good despite all of it.

            I keep hoping that the next mystery I read, or the next episode of Murder, She Wrote I watch, will unlock the secret of how to write a mystery, without having to pound my head against the wall a thousand (more) times, but each time I think, no, I couldn’t do that: I can’t be as confident as Jessica Fletcher; and I don’t know enough police procedure to write about a detective; and I’m just not clever enough to come up with a good puzzle, and then solve it.

“I can solve it!”

            But even though reading these books and watching these shows hasn’t made me feel more capable of writing a mystery novel myself, I do feel like it helps me fill up on the possibility of justice and the hope that there really are good people in the world who are trying to make things better.

“Like me?”

            I actually started writing my first mystery novel this summer, instead of just endlessly plotting it on tiny pieces of paper the way I’ve been doing for the past few years, but the pages have come in fits and starts, especially because I’m also working on the continuing Yeshiva Girl saga, and blog posts, and trying to fit it all in between various crises. But even though it’s been difficult, it IS progress. And my only choice is to keep writing, and reading, whenever I can, and learning from other writers about how they’ve untangled their plots to see if they can give me new ideas for how to untangle the plot points in my own mystery that still have me wrapped up in knots.

“Hurry up, Mommy!”

Even if I never get to Venice and experience the flooding of the Acqua Alta in person, or ride a boat from one crime scene to another, or sit in the overheated office of the Commissario, I feel like I’ve been there and learned from him, and from Donna Leon, and Jacqueline Winspear, and Agatha Christie, and P.D. James. I’m hoping that, however slowly, my own pages will continue to add up into something I can be proud of.

“Will the chicken treats add up too?”

p.s. I want to thank Leslie Bowman, from The Adventures of Bitey Dog (at https://theadventuresofbiteydog.com) for her beautiful portraits of Cricket and Ellie.

Cricket
Ellie

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 Water Sorting Puzzle

            When I use the Duolingo app on my phone, since I refuse to pay for the premium version, I see a lot of ads. Some are for local furniture stores, some are for Duolingo Plus (the paid version), some are for other language learning apps, but a lot are for games. There’s one where you have to put pieces of a “wooden” puzzle together, and one where the fat king gets in all kinds of danger and his life depends on you moving little icons around on the screen, and then there are all of the different versions of water sorting puzzles; some use test tubes, some use bottles, or vases, some even use colored balls instead of water, which is not the same at all. There’s something unreasonably peaceful, and satisfying, about watching water pour from one bottle to another, until all of the blues are with the blues and all of the greens are with the greens. I found myself watching the water sorting game ads all the way through to the end, instead of dropping my phone and looking for something else to do for those thirty seconds.

“Play with me!”

            And a few weeks ago, after the Duolingo tournament had raised my stress level into infinity instead of the app’s usual calming effect, I gave in and downloaded one of the water sorting games.

            There’s no productivity excuse for playing this game; I’m not learning a new language or important scientific principles, but the game is actually the embodiment of some lessons I keep thinking I’ve learned, and keep having to relearn: one, that it’s okay to fail, as long as you keep trying (the game lets you retry the same puzzle until you’ve mastered it, without penalty); and two, sometimes, in order to reach your stated goal you have to take a circuitous route, because there will be barriers in your way that you can’t foresee.

“I love to run in circles!”

            The goal of the water sorting game is to move the sections of colored water from one bottle to another until each bottle holds only one color of water, and you get two empty bottles to help you sort, because you can only pour purple onto purple or green onto green, but any color can be poured into an empty bottle. And the strategy that works for you in one puzzle rarely works in the next one, so that time after time I have to relearn that even if my goal is to get all of the purples into one test tube, I’ll still have to deal with the reds and greens and yellows in the way.

            So, for example, if I want to write the sequel to Yeshiva Girl, which I’ve been trying to do for a very, very long time, I have to accept that there will be more barriers to overcome, and that I won’t always (or even usually) know what they will be ahead of time. I’ll need to try new things, again, and again, again, and if I continue to fail, I may have to start over from the beginning with a blank page. But starting over doesn’t mean I’m failing, it means I’m learning, and inevitably, I will find a way forward.

            There’s a variation of the water sorting game where you can’t see the color of the water below the top section of each bottle until you move the top section away and the next color is revealed, and therefore you cannot plan ahead. I love this variation because it frees me up to accept my blindness, and to accept that I won’t know everything that will be coming my way, and therefore I can take a deep breath and know that I can’t be expected to plan and strategize, and it’s okay to just take it one step at a time, and see what happens.

“One step at a time, huh?”

            I still go to Duolingo every day to work on my languages, and I haven’t fallen into a deep hole wherein all I do all day long is sort colored water instead of writing or getting chores done, yet, but each time I take time out to play the game, I feel like my brain waves are untangling and relaxing back into place, or finding new and better configurations that can help me work through the knots in my actual life with a little more patience.

“I hate patience.”

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 still struggling to write fiction?

            For a long time now I’ve been trying to be practical: I went out and got a social work degree because I thought I needed to have a practical career, and I discovered that wanting to be practical and being able to do those practical things is not the same at all; and then, or even before then, I tried to be more practical about my writing, and focus on what other people wanted me to write, instead of trusting myself and writing what I needed to write.

            I spent most of last summer working on essays about psychology and trauma, because that’s what I thought I should do, because it seemed more practical than writing fiction, and more likely to get published. But, while my therapist was somewhat happy with my efforts (nothing I write is quite how she would write it, so…), I found the writing difficult and frustrating, and alienating, and the rejections kept coming anyway.

“Oy.”

            Back when I went to school to be a writer, the message was always that there is a right way to write: there are rules you have to follow, and styles and techniques that you have to master. But four years of graduate school (two masters degrees) didn’t teach me how to be that writer, they just instilled a lot of stop signs in my brain, telling me what not to do, and who not to be (basically me). And then came all of the rejections from the publishing world, for work my teachers thought would get accepted. It’s demoralizing to be rejected both for who you are and for who you aren’t. It doesn’t leave many options.

            But it would be unfair to blame my fiction block solely on those rejections. I haven’t felt safe writing fiction for a while now, partially because of the external voices telling me that I’m writing all the wrong things, but even more so because I’ve been afraid of the truths that will come out if I allow my imagination to run free. At least with memoir writing, I only have to deal with the things I was willing and able to do in my real life; in fiction I would be opening the door to all of the forbidden thoughts: all of the dreams and ideas and impulses I’ve refused to act on.

            The thing I’ve always loved about writing fiction is that I don’t have to worry so much about the truth. I don’t have to worry if I’m misquoting or mischaracterizing someone (or capturing them exactly as they are, but as they don’t want to be seen). I can play. As a kid that meant that I could write wish-fulfillment stories, and send my characters to exciting places and give them of all the money and friends and good looks I could ever want. But even then I discovered that letting my imagination go where it wanted to go meant that other things came up too, darker things that I didn’t want to deal with. I’d try to write my version of Fantasy Island, where everything was supposed to be perfect, and monsters would start climbing up the walls and crawling out from under the beds.

“Monsters?!”

            I kept writing fiction, but I found ways to keep a lid on my imagination, listening to all of the No’s in my head, from teachers and family and friends and writing around all of those stop signs. Each story or novel took forever to write, with all of those interruptions, and the process was not fun, and I became more and more discouraged.

            But I can’t stop writing; that’s not one of the options. I want to be able to convince myself that the rejections are irrelevant, and that instead of writing what I think I am supposed to write, I should write the things I need to write. But even if I can overcome the first set of stop signs, I’m not sure I can convince myself that it’s safe to write whatever comes into my mind. I want to trust myself. I want to be ready to just write and let the chips fall where they may, but what if those chips explode in my face?

“Potato chips?”

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

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

Everyday Miracles

            This year at synagogue school we’re focusing on miracles for Hanukah (last year we focused on the lights from the candles), and I’m doing a writing workshop with the kids based on Walt Whitman’s poem Miracles (https://poets.org/poem/miracles), to help them see the everyday miracles in their own lives.

            There have been times in my life when I was able to feel the level of wonder Walt Whitman felt at the miracles all around him, but I haven’t been in that state of mind lately. My first thoughts are of what I don’t have, or what’s wrong, or what I’m failing at. My hope is that by actively pushing myself to think about the daily miraculous things, I might be able to regenerate my sense of wonder: like the miracle of Ellie running through the leaves, or the miracle of Cricket giving a five minute diatribe, in the form of an Aria, about why I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the apartment, or the miracle of packages arriving at my door just because I typed a few things into my phone.

“Where’s MY iPhone?

            I want bigger miracles, though. I want to stop feeling so hungry – for food or love or success or whatever else. I want to feel less pain, physical and emotional. I want all of my hard work to kick in so I can finally feel successful and capable and healthy, and safe. It’s hard to be satisfied with the little miracles when I want so much more.

The fact is, I’m struggling. My psychiatrist upped my dose of antidepressants, because my lows have been more persistent lately, even prior to my father’s death. It feels like exhaustion, but I don’t know if there’s a medical cause or a psychological one, or a mix of both. All of the research being done on Long Covid (which I don’t have, because I never got Covid, thank God) promises to offer some insight for those of us who have other long term pain disorders, but I’m not optimistic, honestly.

            My latest experiments with Intuitive Eating have led me to look into self-care more deeply, to see if there are things I could be doing to help lift my mood that I haven’t tried yet, or haven’t tried enough; things, especially, that would take the place of extra food, because I’ve been relying on food as self-care too much lately. My current project has been about collecting good memories (times when I’ve felt cared for, safe, and accepted as I am), so that when I find myself wanting to eat beyond physical hunger I can fill the space with a good memory instead.

            Some of the memories I’ve been working with are: when I was four years old and my grandfather bought me a stuffed panda that was as tall as me and he walked me and the panda, hand in hand, down the driveway to the car; and the time when my brother and I sat on the lawn during a rainstorm with a towel over our heads; and the time we stayed over at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and they took us to Lickety Split for ice cream (I probably had mint chocolate chip) and then we were allowed to choose whichever candies we wanted, and my brother and I sat in the guest room, next to the cuckoo clock, sharing our candy dots and ingesting enormous amounts of paper along the way.

“Yum, paper!”

            I’ve also been collecting songs and TV shows and movies and books that have relieved anxiety or depression in the past, so that if the sweet memories don’t help enough I can move on to visiting YouTube or Spotify mid-meal, or I could even act out a scene from Harry Potter with the dogs if nothing else works.

            I just want to feel better, but it’s all trial and error and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m treading water. I remember this feeling from summer camp, when we had to do a Buddy Call at free swim in the lake. The water was deep and opaque, so we had to go in as pairs, with each pair given a number, and midway through the session we had to call out our numbers, to make sure we were all still alive. If you weren’t at the dock when the whistles blew then you had to tread water through the whole Buddy Call, which could take a while. Under the water I was kicking my legs furiously, but above the water I had to pay close attention to the numbers being called out, so I wouldn’t miss our turn. It was exhausting, and panic inducing. I worried that I’d forget my number, or forget how to count in Hebrew letters, but most of all I worried that my legs would give out and I’d fall under the water and the lifeguards would have to dive in to search for me and they’d be pissed off at me for the rest of the summer. I didn’t have faith that my buddy would remember our number, or call it out, or save me if I started to drown. I didn’t have much faith in other people, period.

“I would save you, Mommy!”
“Yeah, sure. Me too.”

            So this writing workshop on miracles is coming at the right time, and maybe when the kids tap into their own ideas of what’s miraculous in their lives I will remember my own miracles too. My hope is, always, that if I keep trying, keep working at this process of healing, good things will come. I just wish they’d come a little bit faster.

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?

Reading about Pawpaws

            A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read one of my essays out loud to a Mutual Support Zoom for my synagogue. We’ve been doing these all year, as a way to keep each other company and to get to know our fellow congregants during Covid. We’re winding up the series now, since most of the regulars have been vaccinated and are returning, slowly, to in-person events, and this was my last chance to take a risk and add my voice to the mix.

“When do I get to talk?”

The theme of this particular Zoom was trees, probably the third or fourth on that theme, because with all of the time we’ve been spending at home for the past year nature has caught everyone’s attention more fully than before. People have been presenting photographs and quilts and poems on trees, and experts have been called in to speak about the science of trees and the care and feeding of trees. When I was asked if I had anything to contribute on the subject, I thought about my pawpaw trees. They have grown with me, and surprised me, and devastated me for a long time now, and I realized that this was something I wanted to share. It didn’t hurt that I had an essay ready to go, freshly rejected from various literary magazines.

“Harrumph.”

            I haven’t done a public reading of my work in a long time, and in the past, I have found them overwhelming. At the graduate reading for my MFA in Fiction I was so anxious that I started crying at the podium, which made it much harder to see the papers in front of me, though I made it through, eventually.

            This reading went a lot better than that one; maybe because it was a small group of familiar faces, or because in the intervening years I’ve had a lot of practice reading other people’s work out loud and teaching in front of a class. I don’t know. It was certainly helpful to have my pawpaw friends there to keep me company, in spirit. Whatever made the difference, this time I actually enjoyed reading my work to an audience. And I think I even did a good job of it (which, given my propensity to self-criticism is saying a lot).

            I don’t know where this leads me, but it felt like a big step forward, because it’s a sign that, maybe, despite all of my fears, I’m getting better at pursuing the things I love. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

“Yes!”

            So here’s the essay I read to those fifteen kind people. I hope you like it.

A Pawpaw Story

            Almost fourteen years ago now, I ordered a box of Pawpaws at a friend’s suggestion. They arrived in September, each fruit wrapped in newspaper because they are so fragile and easily bruised. Pawpaws are custardy sweet, and the flesh has to be eaten with a spoon, not peeled like an orange, or sliced like an apple, or bitten straight into like a strawberry. 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. It’s work.  The Pawpaw season is very short and the fruit rots within days, so if you order a box (usually from Ohio) you need to eat them, or freeze them, fast.

             Some say pawpaws are too sweet, or too funny looking, or too smelly, but, I discovered, pawpaws are just right for me.

Pawpaw fruit (not my picture)

            We saved the seeds in the freezer, like the instructions said to do (pawpaw growers are, by their very nature, proselytizers), and at the end of the winter, Mom and I planted the seeds in big ceramic pots in the kitchen, next to the window sill, with the pots wrapped in scarves because there was still a bit of a chill left in the air. And then, like the Talmudic sages said the angels do for every blade of grass, I stood over the pots and whispered, “Grow, Grow.”

            And they did grow. 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 saplings, gradually growing taller, as their leaves extended out like shiny green fans. For years, their leaves paled to yellow in the fall, disappeared for the winter, and reappeared in the spring.

            We had to dig the three surviving trees up and replant them five years later, when we moved. And one suffered a horrible gardening accident when the maintenance men were working higher up on the retaining wall and tossing small trees downhill. But the other two Pawpaw trees survived, now carefully marked, and settled into their new surroundings. They continued to grow, year after year, 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 Pawpaw expert told us 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 were crushed in the shipping process and never really recovered, though we watched over them hopefully for a season.

Finally, after eleven years, my two Pawpaw trees started to flower. The flowers were small, and a deep burgundy brown color, but pretty quickly they dried up and flew away, and the leaves turned yellow again and the trees went to sleep again for another winter.

            The following year, the flowers came back bigger and brighter, and there were more of them, and they were 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, and hope for fruit. A tiny cluster of baby fruit showed up a while later, and even though it only survived for a week, we were hopeful that maybe in another year, after another season of flowering, the trees would be ready to fruit for real.

A pawpaw flower

            Twelve years may seem too long to wait for a piece of fruit, but to me the wait was sort of the point.

            And then, about a month later, disaster struck, of the human kind. I was napping during the day, as I often do, and Mom was in the living room working on a quilt. Somehow she heard a sound over the thumping of the old sewing machine, maybe the crying out of a dying tree had a particular power. I heard a scream, and a door slam, and then my dogs came to get me, but they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I waited, worried about that scream and the horror it foretold. I could only imagine the death and destruction, the multiple apocalyptic events held in that scream. When Mom finally returned, ringing the doorbell, because she’d forgotten her key, she told me that the new gardeners had killed one of the pawpaw trees, and she’d reached them just in time to save the second one.

I didn’t understand. The pawpaw trees were over fifteen feet tall by then, and no longer wearing the blue tape they’d worn years earlier to mark them as special, because after seven years on the property they didn’t seem at risk anymore. Mom said she’d had to drag the murdered Pawpaw tree into the woods herself, for burial. But, why? The gardeners told her that they’d had to cut everything back in order to mow the lawn in straight lines. But not a tree, she’d screamed at them, you could have trimmed some of the branches if they were in your way, but who cuts down a tree in order to mow a lawn?

            The violence of it felt real to me, not metaphorical. When I finally went outside, the stump of the dead tree stuck up out of the retaining wall, looking wet, almost bloody. Obscene.

            Within minutes, Mom was googling for advice. She wondered if we could re-plant the amputated branches, or order pollen from another pawpaw tree to be sent to us each year, in order to fertilize our lone tree and maybe, finally, produce fruit.

            But I sat still, undone, convinced that you can’t un-chop a tree.

            Weeks passed. We dressed the lone pawpaw tree in a colorful bowtie, to protect it from future gardeners, and I whispered to it daily, to keep it from dying of loneliness.

            And then Mom called me to look at something in the retaining wall, in the area of the dead tree stump. I thought maybe she would show me more of her re-growth experiments, expecting me to be excited and invested, when all I could feel was the deadness of everything. Instead, she showed me pawpaw leaves, living and breathing on two long stalks, half green and half brown, and wobbly from very recent growth, growing out of the dirt two feet from the dead stump. We had not planted new Pawpaw seeds, or even noticed any random Pawpaw trees planting themselves under the mass of other trees and bushes in the retaining wall, but there they were. It just seemed so unlikely, to me, that Pawpaw trees could have created themselves, without any help, just when we needed them most.

            I picked one of the leaves to bring over to the big Pawpaw tree to compare. But I still felt skeptical, because that’s my automatic response to most things. It can’t be true, especially if I want it to be true. Mom pointed out the unique quilting design on the leaves, unlike any other leaves nearby, and the shine on the baby leaves, which I’d seen many times myself when our Pawpaws came back to life each spring.

            A few days later, Mom went back to the same spot, to make sure the Pawpaw stalks were still there, and not just a mirage made out of grief, and she found another, much smaller, Pawpaw sapling, maybe just a few weeks old. And she kept going back, and searching more carefully, and finding more Pawpaws, sprouting everywhere like a tiny village growing from the roots of the seemingly, but not really, dead tree.

            And I had to accept that my skepticism, my pessimism, was wrong. Sometimes the things we want most really do happen; sometimes trees can re-create themselves. From the beginning, I thought that Mom and I would put in endless years of effort for no real reward, because that’s just the way of things. But there they were, a forest of pawpaws coming to life all around me, trying to tell me that trees are living things, and deep in their roots they are desperate to survive, just like us. And sometimes, despite everything, we grow.

The pawpaw tree in autumn.

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 Emptiness

            The more successful I become at Intuitive Eating, the more I have to face the sadness of not being able to use food to fill the emptiness. I don’t know why I describe it as emptiness when it seems so full of pain, but it’s so black in there, and it’s all so un-see-able and un-name-able that it appears empty to me. I think I became a writer in order to try to name the emptiness, but I’m still working at it.

“The word you’re looking for is ‘woof.'”

            Is it really sadness that I feel when I tell myself that it’s time to stop eating, or it is anger, or frustration, or disappointment? The first feeling that comes up is that it reminds me of being on the bumpy train with Mom from Paris to Versailles when I was sixteen years old, with no air-conditioning and a severe case of motion sickness. It feels physical, as if there are gears and strings in my belly and they are being pulled and pushed and making creaking noises, just because I won’t let myself eat another two hundred calories of whatever. And every time I try to define the feeling or suggest an activity to distract myself from it, this voice in my belly screams, NO!

“That’s my favorite word!”

            I keep picturing this space as an emptiness that needs to be filled, but the physical feeling is as if I swallowed a sharps container at the doctor’s office and all of these needles and blades are roiling around in my belly. I felt a lot of this as a teenager, but back then the sharps seemed to be in my veins, traveling through my arms and legs and into my skull, and I couldn’t name those emotions either, I just knew that they were unbearable.

            I know all of the things that I’m supposed to try to do in order to fill the void and soothe the pain, like meditation, or a bath, or exercise, or reading a book, etc. Reading and writing are, of course, my reliable old friends, but I’ve also tried different exercise programs and music and movies and craft projects over the years. Knitting used to help, and then coloring and puzzles. But sometimes the emptiness is so persistent and so prickly that nothing works. All I can feel is the sharp, bristling, feathery pangs of something as it scrapes across my insides and whispers hopelessness to me over and over again.

            In fact, a lot of the activities that are supposed to be soothing – like meditation or yoga or baths or massages – create more panic and agitation for me, and stir up the sharp things that live in the emptiness, instead of calming them down. It seems so unfair to have all of these weapons aimed at me from the inside.

            I think some of what’s in the emptiness is a need to fight or flee, even as my body freezes in place and waits for the danger to pass. It would be like catching a humming bird in a glass ball and feeling the endless beat of her wings while she can’t get out. The endless activity and rapid heartbeat and desperation for escape all lead to utter exhaustion, with no sign of an enemy anywhere nearby to explain the need to fly away.

            I keep hoping that if I can name the sharp things, and bring more light into the void, then I’ll be able to soothe the pain, but that hasn’t worked yet.

            Part of the problem is that the panic – that there will be no way to soothe the whatever-it-is that I can’t even name – is profound. And eating something often does stop the panic. The panic is then replaced with shame at overeating, and hopelessness that I will ever lose weight, but the chaos and the panic do subside with food, and in that moment, that’s the most important thing.

“Food is magical!”

            So here I am, feeling the sharp things in the emptiness, resenting them, and trying not to use food to solve the problem. Now what?

“Have you tried chicken?”

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?

On Poetry

            I keep trying to push at my boundaries lately, to see if they are still solid brick or becoming something more flexible over time, and one of the boundaries I’m trying to move is the one that keeps me at a distance from poetry. I used to write poetry, and I even got some of my poems published way back when. I don’t remember what the toggle was, between poetry and songs and plays and novels and essays and short stories, but I wrote all of them at different times and often at the same time. I had (and still have) a form of Hypergraphia, an obsessive need to write. I used to write on my bare legs during summer classes in college, when I ran out of room on the page where I was supposed to be taking notes.

            I went through a phase of trying all of the forms of poetry I could find – Tanka, Haiku, Sonnet, etc. – and the rules were reassuring, for a while, and then not at all. So I tried to create my own forms, experimenting with meter and rhyme schemes and lower case letters and spacing on the page. I spent years at it, waiting for something to click into place and sound right and true, and it never really happened. I don’t know if I failed to reach the heart of poetry, or if poetry was just the wrong shape for my heart, but it left me feeling like only slivers of my story were visible, as if the best I could do was to present a broken mirror to the world.

            But recently there have been subjects that seem to beg for poetry. I tried to write about my Paw Paw trees and the Carolina Wren in poems, but they turned into essays, insistently, over and over again. I couldn’t seem to translate myself into the vocabulary and shape and size needed. I feel like there’s a mystery to poetry that I can’t crack, a rhythm I can’t find, or create.

I love what poetry can do: how it can say so much in a few words and inject wisdom so quickly, in so few images and words, into our collective blood streams. Not every poem succeeds, but the good stuff feels like a lightning strike.

We read a lot of poetry at my synagogue, and the prayers themselves are often poems, or poetic prose, trying to capture that lightning of an Aha moment, so that in a relatively short service we can be reminded of why we live our lives the way we do. Prayer feels relatively meaningless, to me, without a community to sing and say it with me (either in person, on zoom, or in my imagination), because it’s that communal feeling that brings God, the idea, to life. And I think the same is true with poetry, for me. I need to imagine other people reading and hearing and thinking the poem at the same time in order to hear the echoes in the words.

“We’re listening too!”

            But I want to write poetry, not just read it. I want to be able to contain my thoughts and feelings in those manageable boxes, and have those small jewels to share: beautiful and perfect and under control. I thought, maybe, that I could freewrite, in order to get the ideas out of my head, and then find the poem by cutting the excess away. But all I could do was to take my clumsy, oversized self and chop away limbs until I fit inside of the box, and then I didn’t recognize the poem at all. Worse, I hated it for the monster it had become.

“Monsters? Where?!

            Prose gives me more room to stretch out, and to put the puzzle together in my own way, but still, poetry sits there on the shelf, waiting for me, glaring at me, wondering why I am still so far away.

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?

Sketchnoting and Visual Learning

            We had a professional development session for synagogue school – on Zoom – to teach us a technique called Sketchnoting. The broad purpose of the session, I think, was to open our minds to different methods of teaching, and different ways to encourage our students to express their own thoughts. And for people who process information best through visuals, and especially through pictures, the Sketchnoting method is probably a huge step forward in learning and comprehension.

            But for me, it was torture.

“Me too.”

            It took me years to learn how to read menus and recipes, because of the way the words are presented on the page, and I have never been able to read a comic book or a graphic novel from beginning to end without wanting to throw it out the window. I’m sure this qualifies as a learning disability of some kind, but it was never diagnosed or addressed in school, and I worked around it well enough that no one seemed to notice.

            But sitting there during the professional development session, staring at the computer screen and trying to make sense of a series of little pictures meant to represent words, drove me nuts. I wasn’t the only one who struggled, thank God, or else I would have (naturally) assumed it was all my fault, for being so hard-headed and stiff-necked and whatever else is wrong with me. The teacher of the class even acknowledged that learning how to translate words into pictures is much harder than recognizing the meaning of pictures drawn by someone else (though I found that difficult too).

“Oy.”

            After a general introduction to what Sketchnoting looks like on the page (simple drawings, separated by boxes, often modified with one or two descriptive words), we did an exercise where the teacher gave us a word (in this case the word was “idea”) and asked us all to draw a picture of the word on a post-it note. My first thought was a lightbulb, but I can’t draw a lightbulb, and I don’t understand why a lightbulb is supposed to represent an idea, so I rejected that one. Then I tried to draw a cloud, because I was thinking about the Platonic ideals and how there’s supposedly a perfect version of each idea, somewhere, like maybe in heaven, but I couldn’t draw a cloud either; my best attempt looked more like an ameba.

And then I drew a tree – a very simple, curly-headed tree – because trees have been on my mind lately, and because I never have just one idea; I tend to have a core idea that branches out in dozens of directions. So a tree fit the word idea, for me.

            All of this took place in twenty seconds. And when I held up my post-it note to the camera, the teacher picked it out of everything on the screen and said, disbelieving, is that a tree? He didn’t ask why I would draw a tree, or what made a tree my best representation of the word idea. He just told us that whenever he does this exercise the majority of people draw a lightbulb, and a significant minority draw a word bubble over the head of a person, and this is proof that we actually do share a common visual language that most people will understand. Except for Rachel, of course.

“Oh, Mommy.”

            If I’d gone with my first idea and drawn even a terrible lightbulb, I would have fit in fine, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied with my work. I would have been disappointed in myself, because even though I know enough about popular culture to know that, at least in the United States, a lightbulb is often used to represent an idea, that’s not what it represents for me.

            But I felt guilty for rocking the boat. I didn’t realize, until after the exercise was over, that the teacher had been trying to prove a point about the universality of certain images. I thought I was supposed to be creative and imaginative, and I’d clearly misunderstood the purpose of the exercise.

            The teacher went on to tell us that you can use Sketchnoting to capture the deeper meaning of an essay or a lecture or a YouTube video. He said that you’ll be able to remember more of the lecture if you can sum up key ideas in pictures instead of words. But I couldn’t do most of the exercises he gave us, because I couldn’t think of pictures to draw to represent specific concepts, and even when I could think of something, I couldn’t draw it fast enough.

            Before the teacher himself had come onto the Zoom, my boss did a warm up exercise with us, asking us to describe how we each take in information. She called on me first, and I should have been able to guess that she was asking if we are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, or some variation on that idea, but instead I was flummoxed, because I didn’t know what she was looking for. I don’t know, I said, I take in information in a million different ways.

“I take in information through my nose and my belly.”

            I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I only understood that she was (probably) asking the visual/auditory/kinesthetic question in the aftermath, though no one else really answered in those terms either. But it felt like a microcosm of how I respond to the world overall: with confusion. I know some part of it is because I want to be different, but a lot of it is that I can’t figure out what kind of answer people are looking for and I don’t make the assumptions they expect me to make. I generally have the “right” answer in my back pocket, but I have ten other answers in there too, and I don’t know which one to choose.

            I remember a psychology class where the teacher had us go through a stack of Rorschach cards and describe what we saw. She had a list of scores for each possible interpretation and most of the students in the class fit nicely into the pre-set answer groups, and then there was me. She called my answers “creative,” because I saw things like a group of monkeys in space suits riding bicycles, instead of a butterfly, or a lion. She couldn’t score my answers and just shrugged when I asked what that might mean.

“Harrumph.”

            But, I’m learning that it’s not that I’m bad at all kinds of visual learning, it’s that my mind sees more possibilities than other people see, and I have to ask a lot of extra questions to narrow down what someone else expects me to see. It makes me difficult. And it makes my life difficult. And people assume I’m doing it on purpose, just to be different. And I don’t know; maybe I am.

            But is that so bad?

            When I look at my students, I don’t see anyone who fits neatly into the predetermined learning categories. I see a lot of unicorns. And maybe I’m seeing things in them that no one else sees; but it’s there. And, yes, they can be trained to see the world in a rigid, conventional way; or most of them can. But I’m unlikely to be the teacher who asks that of them. I’d rather have a room full of unicorns, even if that makes them more challenging to teach, because that’s what makes the work so much fun.

“I’m a unicorn too, right?”

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?

Who do I want to write for?

            A friend in the blogging community (Elizabeth at Saved by WordsElizabethslaughter.com) suggested that I could think about who I’m writing for when I’m writing something other than a blog post, since I’ve been struggling to want to work on anything other than blog posts.

            In a lot of ways, my writing feels automatic to me, because I’ve been doing it my whole life. I spent a huge part of my childhood telling myself stories, about trips to other planets and alternate families and happier endings to my own life stories too. As I got older, I wrote poems and songs and stories and novels. I would write to organize my thoughts, and to remember what I was thinking, because I forget things so quickly. I wrote down dreams in order to remember them, and then to process what they might mean. When I started the blog I quickly found that it was a satisfying way to connect with actual people. I didn’t have to tell my stories only to myself anymore, or send my words out into the ether to be judged, or ignored.

“Don’t worry. I still judge you.”

            Over the past eight years that I’ve been blogging I’ve come to realize that my favorite thing about writing is hearing back from readers, knowing that my writing has been read and heard and processed and responded to. The feeling of satisfaction I get when I see that people really feel something in response to my words is so much better than getting an “A” in school (which is still pretty nice). And I’m loathe to waste my writing on literary magazines who will just reject my work after a year-long waiting period, when instead I could post something today and get responses from thoughtful readers within hours.

            But I still want to be a professional writer; the kind that gets paid. And I still want to write longer form essays and fiction. I LOVE fiction. I love the freedom it gives me to change the stories of my life into something more hopeful, or to live out a completely different life from my own.

            The problem is, when I think about writing professionally I start to feel distant from myself, remembering all of the rejection letters and the critiques and the endless questioning of how I write and what I write about and who I write for and the underlying, persistent, mantra telling me that my voice doesn’t matter and won’t sell; my writing is too literary, or too commercial, or too serious, or too lighthearted, or too plot driven, or too character driven, or too emotional, or too intellectual. But when I sit down to write for the blog I remember the comments I received on the previous blog posts, and the encouragement and kindness and investment of my readers.

“Bloggy people are awesome!”

            There’s that, but there’s also something else. When I’m working on longer projects, my writing voice varies. I don’t have any conscious awareness of trying to fit a style while I’m writing, or any conscious control over how the words come to me, but when I read over the draft, days or weeks later, I can see how my writing was influenced by my intended audience, or by my preconceptions of who they would want me to be.

            I wish I could write everything the way I write for the blog, trusting that my readers will care about me and respect me and engage with the subjects I care about. I want to be able to write from where I am at this moment in time, instead of trying to guess what other people will want to read at some moment in the future. And I want to challenge myself to write the different things that interest me, the long essays, and the children’s stories, and the mysteries, and the Young Adult novels, and the memoirs.

            And I would love to see my books on library shelves, in hardcover, with beautiful reviews on the back cover; and I’d love to win awards and make a living from my writing, and be interviewed about my work.

“I can interview you, Mommy. First question: Where are my treats?”

            But I don’t trust that the larger audience will embrace me and accept me the way my blog readers have, and I think I’ve learned to stop myself from writing the things that could force me to face those rejections again, even though I want to write these things.

            If only I could quiet the voices that recite all of the rejection letters to me when I sit down to write, and replace them with the voices that are kind and thoughtful week after week. Maybe then I could be prolific again, or at least feel free to write everything that matters to me.

“Just keep writing about us, Mommy. That’s the most important thing.”

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?