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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?         

How do I grow from here?

            I was growing before. I could feel it. My trunk was growing more stable and my branches were starting to leaf, even to flower. But I hit a wall this year, with the extra weight of Covid, and hybrid teaching, and maybe trying to move forward too quickly.

“I’m a blur!”

            I keep watching Hallmark movies, hoping that the gumption and confidence of the heroines will rub off on me. I want to be the kind of person who sees a problem and relishes the chance to solve it; I want to be the kind of person who can embrace change, and persist despite rejection, and believe in my vision of the future and fight for it; but I’m not.

            It’s been a relief, during Covid, to have an excuse not to move faster towards my goals, because my inner clock runs very slowly compared to the normal world. Covid time is much more my speed.

            I know I need to branch out in new directions, but I don’t feel safe out on those shaky limbs. I’ve struggled to decide which risks to take, because I don’t know ahead of time what I’m ready to handle or what will be too much. I’ve had experience with “too much” in the past and how deep the hopelessness and depression can be when what I thought would be a small leap over a shallow puddle turned out to be a swan dive off a cliff.

            I keep hearing the introjected voices in my head telling me what I should do and who I should be, and lately the shoulds have been taking precedence over what I want, and they’ve prevented me from investing the energy and patience I’d need to succeed at the things I really love. Like writing. I feel like the shoulds are yelling at me and the wants are whispering, and I don’t know who to listen to.

            I’m still writing, but the voices keep telling me that I have no right to think of myself as a writer in the face of all of the rejection, and no right to spend time working through plot lines when I should be doing something worthwhile, like teaching, or social work. And when I sit down to write, the voices get louder and louder. I only feel safe working on short pieces for the blog, because the longer pieces are the ones that have collected all of the rejections. It feels like masochism to keep writing things that no one but an intern at a literary magazine will ever see.

“I like to reject people. Deal with it.”

            Is it okay to continue to write when so much of my work has been deemed unacceptable? Is it selfish? Is it self-destructive?

            I’m angry that the rejections have stopped me from writing more, and I’m angry that I can’t shut off my inner critics and get the work done, and then I’m angry at myself for being such a loser and a moron and an idiot, and on and on. My therapist asked me to write down all of the nasty things I hear in my head when I try to write and I filled six pages without ever feeling like I’d scratched the surface.

“It’s exhausting.”

            But I don’t want to give in to these voices and follow the shoulds instead of doing the things I love. I’m so tired of hearing what’s wrong with me, and what’s not enough, or what’s too much, as if the noise is blaring out of speakers everywhere I go.

            So this year, my resolution is to do the work that matters to me, even when it’s hard, even when I have to fill page after page with nonsense before I can get to one good, heartfelt sentence. I hate that it’s so hard to get to the good stuff, but it is, for me, for now.

            And I have to persist.

“I can teach you how to persist, Mommy. It’s my super power!”

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 Can’t I Write a Midrash?

When the official Jewish Bible was closed, the rabbis still had questions they wanted to answer, so they started writing the Talmud (The Mishnah and then the Gemara), a compendium of (endless) arguments, commentaries, word play, stories and Gematria (a method for finding deeper meaning in the text, using the number values of the letters). And then, after the Talmud was considered closed, the next generation of Rabbis still had more questions, and answers, about what God really meant in the Bible, so they kept writing and collected the work in new books of Midrashim (a Midrash is a general term for the way the rabbis interpreted and elaborated on the biblical text, and Midrashim is the plural of Midrash).

Midrashim exist in many different forms: stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis. In a way, Midrash is the earliest form of fan fiction, where we take existing characters and situations from popular TV shows or books and imagine new scenarios for them. Just like we want to enter the world of Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Little Women, our ancestors wanted to enter the world of the Bible and imagine themselves in the role of Abraham or Sarah or Miriam or Moses. They liked to think about how they would have behaved in front of the Burning Bush, or facing the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian soldiers coming up behind them. And they wanted to imagine what it would be like to face God, and speak to God, and criticize God directly the way the characters in the Bible were able to do.

“I tell God my opinion all the time.”

The best known Midrash may be the legend of Abraham as a young child smashing his father’s idols. He tells his father that the idols destroyed each other, and his father didn’t buy it, because idols aren’t living beings. To which little Abraham says, exactly. According to MyJewishLearning.com, this Midrash, collected in Genesis Rabbah, was created to explain why God would choose Abraham in particular to be the father of the Jewish people, because he was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time.

            Midrash fascinates me because it allows us to reinterpret the Bible through our own eyes. It’s about more than just figuring out what the original writers meant, it’s about finding something in the story that rings true for us in particular. A Midrash doesn’t have to be factual in order to express a deeper truth from the Bible, and therefore, possibly, meaningful to the reader as well.

            Unfortunately, since we have such a long tradition of rabbis (aka men) telling us what to think, many people still feel too intimidated to read the Bible through their own eyes. They imagine that the rabbis, who were often already a thousand or two thousand years distant from the source material themselves, must have heard the voice of God. But just because they had the confidence to believe they knew what was right, doesn’t mean they were right. Or that their answers are right for us.

“My answers are always right.”

            Midrash writing wasn’t just popular in the distant past, modern writers have taken it on as well. Consider Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent, a reimagining of the story of Dinah in the Bible. Judith Plaskow is another modern feminist Midrash writer, who embarked on Midrash writing as a way to include the female voice in the story of the Jews, while still respecting the Bible itself and the traditions of Judaism. She wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith,” re-imagining Lilith as a woman who was wrongly punished for wanting to be considered equal to Adam. The original Lilith Midrash was written by men, as an attempt to make sense of the two different versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth in Genesis. In the first version, both Adam and his wife are created from the earth, and in the second version Eve is created from Adam’s rib (or his side), and the rabbis decided that these were two separate creation stories. In the first, the wife God created for Adam, Lilith, was too uppity and thought that she was equal to Adam, so, of course, she turned out to be a demon who defied God and threatened to eat children (no, really). When God created a second wife for Adam, Eve, God decided that she needed to know her place, so she was created out of Adam himself, as a subsidiary to him. Of course she still went and ate that apple, so, women, feh. It’s all their fault.

“That’s not nice!”

Judith Plaskow’s version of Lilith isn’t a demon at all, she’s a woman who refuses to be submissive to her husband and leaves him. Eve, the second wife, is told that Lilith is a demon who has to be kept out of the Garden of Eden because she’s a threat to children and women, etc, etc. But Eve gradually recognizes that Lilith is just a woman, like herself, and someone she could be friends with.

Both Midrashim represent the mindset, and the time period, of the writers themselves, and both give us new ways to read the original stories in the Bible and try to understand the inconsistencies and mysteries therein. Can I believe that there are women whose power to seduce or manipulate men can seem demonic? Yes. Are there women who are called demons who are really just people being held back from living their own lives? Yes. Are either of those readings what God, or the authors of the Bible, meant us to learn from the original stories in the Bible? We can’t know. The truth of the stories, and the lessons of the stories, are up to us to decide. And we can each decide differently.

“I don’t think Cricket believes that.”

I want to help my students, children and adults, see that Judaism isn’t a religion of passive obedience, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. If you are willing to engage in the storytelling, and the story-hearing, and take ownership of your own beliefs and values, Judaism can be as dynamic and meaningful as you need it to be.

            And yet, I keep struggling to write my own Midrashim, or to plan a way to teach people how to write Midrash. I’m intimidated by exactly those people who I want to thumb my nose at, and I think this happens in a lot of areas of my life. I know what I think, and what I believe, but I don’t feel like my beliefs matter, or have value, compared to the people who are RIGHT. The dichotomy between my confidence in my own opinions, on the one hand, and my belief that I have no right to that confidence on the other, is a constant.

The Bible is so tempting to work with, because it is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to certain details. Don’t get me wrong, you will be bored to tears with lists of ancestors and sacrifices and tribes and kosher and unkosher animals, but the storytelling style is very lean and leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. It’s instinctive to start asking questions like, what must have happened behind the scenes to make the characters act that way? What might they have been feeling or thinking that they didn’t say? And what else happened that the writers of the Bible decided to leave out, if we assume that these are true stories?

            But I keep hearing the rabbis (ancient and current day) yelling at me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I keep hearing my imaginary students telling me that this work is too hard and not worth the effort, because we could just read the existing commentaries and Midrashim, or we could write new stories of our own instead of dragging meaning from such a stubborn book. And I can’t disagree. But I’m still compelled by the possibility that I could find a way to place myself in the world of my ancestors, and see more of what was there than I’ve been able to see so far.

            I just don’t know where to start. Maybe with Lilith. Maybe, for me, Lilith isn’t a demon, or even a separate person from Eve. Maybe I can see both creation stories as part of the same story, with one woman seeing herself as equal to her husband, and subsidiary to him, at different times. Because, why wouldn’t the first woman be as conflicted over who she thinks she is, or who she thinks she should be, as I am?

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?

Alumni Day

            I graduated with my MFA in fiction thirteen years ago, and I’ve never been to any of the Alumni events held by the school. First of all, it’s too expensive to fly to North Carolina and stay in a hotel and pay tuition. Second, I’ve been busy with other things for the past few years: taking psychology classes, then working on my MSW, and now teaching. But, to be honest, even if I could have made the time, or afforded the trip, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to face people who had made more of their writing careers, or their teaching careers, or their editing and publishing careers than I had. I can barely keep my ego ticking as it is, and I was afraid that going back into that environment with so little to show for myself might crush me.

“You’re so melodramatic.”

            This year, because of Covid, the alumni programming was planned for Zoom, or something like Zoom. It would just be for one day, and free, and easy to get to, but I was still reluctant to go. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know that many people, and I was afraid that I would see people I did know, and didn’t really want to see again, but most of all, I was afraid that I would fall into a shame spiral, comparing myself to other people and how brave they are, and how persistent they’ve been, and how confident they are about their right to be heard. I was also afraid that the intellectual snobbery thing – we write literary fiction – would leak all over me and make me feel shitty, and my ego strength would return to where it was when I was in that school, and I would fall off an emotional cliff.

Given all of that, it was hard to understand why I was even considering going to this thing. It felt like some perverse way of testing myself, to see if I’ve changed in the past fifteen years. But I also felt guilty for not pushing myself to go to any of the previous years’ events, and missing out on the possibility that someone or something at one of those reunions could have helped me build my writing career. I don’t think I’ve ever really healed from the writing workshops in graduate school: the jealousy, the demeaning quality of the criticism, the conformity of the standards, the daily reality that everything is a competition for scarce resources… That’s why when I run writing workshops now, I try hard to make them therapeutic and welcoming and non-competitive, because my own experiences in writing workshops were so much the opposite.

            But then there was the boy. I think of him as a boy because we were both so immature when we met in graduate school. He’s off on his own track now, married with kids and a good job, and I’m still me. I wanted to see him, but only if he was going to smile at me and be happy to see me; I didn’t want to see him if he was going to pity me, or look down on me. And I didn’t even know if he would be there.

            Maybe most of all, I wanted to see if this one day return to graduate school could help me restart my confidence around trying to get published. I’ve been steely-eyed about making sure I get a blog post written each week, no matter what other responsibilities come up, but I haven’t been as strong-willed in the past few years about working on and sending out my other writing projects.

            It’s just so freaking hard to ignore the rejections.

“I accept you, Mommy!”

            I finally filled out the registration form for the Alumni event, thinking I could still decide not to go at the last minute. I chose a few sessions to go to, and gave myself permission to leave sessions early, or go to more of them, depending on how things went.

            I woke up early on Alumni day, well, earlier than I wanted to, and went to my first event in the living room. The timing of the first session was lucky, because I had my regular phone call with my therapist scheduled for right afterwards. That safety net was reassuring. I flipped through multiple screens looking for faces I might recognize, and then I checked the participants list. I saw a few familiar names from the school Facebook group, but not many from my time in the program, so I took a break for a few minutes, paced the floor, watched some terrible news, and then went back to the computer for a reading by one of the graduates from my time who’d been more successful than me. And I survived. The therapy break right afterwards was a relief, though, and then there was a writing workshop that felt more like a literature class, which is not my thing, and then I slept through a panel I’d wanted to go to, on book promotion, because I was exhausted from all of the zooming by then.

“Can I go back to sleep?”

            To make up for missing the Book Promotion panel, I forced myself to go to the first few minutes of the final event, an Open Mic, despite not having it on my to-do list ahead of time. I actually tried to stay for a while and support my fellow alumni but I couldn’t seem to sit still anymore, and I wanted to start writing this blog post, because I couldn’t really be sure what the day had meant to me until I could look at it in squiggles on the page.

             I was disappointed not to see the boy; maybe he’d gone to one of the sessions I’d skipped, or maybe he was too busy, or maybe he was just as afraid of returning to graduate school as I was, or maybe he was afraid of seeing me. And I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize many of the other alumni on the screen, and that my impulse to send out my work was still in snooze mode. I was disappointed that Alumni day hadn’t turned out to be a great step forward in my life, or a chance to confront deep dark old wounds, or get a great idea for a new book, but, the good news was that I didn’t fall into a shame spiral either. I’d given it a try, and then I’d listened to my discomfort and my own point of view, and I let myself shrug it off. That wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. I was able to hear the old thoughts pass through my mind – you’re not trying hard enough to fit in, you’re not the right kind of writer, you don’t deserve success because you don’t know how to give people what they want – and I picked up each old thought like a Daddy Long Legs in the bathtub and I set it aside. And that was it.

            It was an anticlimactic experience, but, in its way, it was a significant step forward for me. I said yes to something that scared me, I gave it a try, and then when it didn’t work out, I was able to just let it go. And then I took the dogs out for a walk, wrote the first draft of this blog post, and watched a Hallmark movie, or two. Not such a bad day after all.

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?         

A Writing Workshop for Tashlich

Last year, I ran two writing workshops at my synagogue, to help empower people to write their own blessings, and to validate more of their real emotions and experiences on a daily basis. I only had a small group of writers with me each time, but the work they did was revelatory and worth the effort. So, with the very unusual world we are living in today, and with High Holiday services scheduled to take place entirely on line, my rabbi asked me to come up with another workshop, on Zoom this time, to prepare for the ceremony of Tashlich, which usually takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, outdoors. This will be our only chance to connect in person at a safe distance as a community during the holidays, and the rabbi wanted to give people a chance to prepare for it more fully, and also a way to include the people who, for reasons of health or age, would still not be able to participate in person.

The word Tashlich means “casting off,” and it is a ceremony where we gather together at a body of water to cast off our sins from the past year. This is when my congregation usually goes to a nearby pond, to hop over goose poop, meet everyone’s dogs, sing with the cantor, and toss our sins out to the ducks, in the form of birdseed or anything else that won’t kill them.

“Are we going to shul with you?”

It is one more avenue for doing Teshuvah (Repentance, or Return), which is the goal for the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on through Yom Kippur. It’s sort of like a six-week version of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, including making amends for past bad actions. There is a heavy emphasis on sin and guilt, and the implication is that we’ve all got big garbage bags full of sins from the past year that we need to empty out.

I’m not a huge fan of the emphasis on Sin and Repentance, but I do see the value in looking back on the year to see how we’ve inevitably veered off track, or gotten preoccupied by too much external noise. And I like the idea of making the process of casting things off more concrete, creating a safe container for our more difficult realizations about ourselves, and the emotions connected to them, and then physically throwing them away.

Despite all of my experiences of Tashlich occurring at duck ponds, it turns out that the preference of the rabbis was that the body of water would have fish in it, because fish can’t close their eyes and therefore they remind us of God’s constant protective watch over the Jewish people. But, if you can’t get to a body of water, you can also toss your sins into a bucket of standing water, or into running water from the kitchen sink, or you can even flush them down the toilet. You can write your sins on paper towels, or tissues, or rice paper, or you can even write them in sidewalk chalk and wash them away with a hose, or water balloons!

“Don’t be silly.”

But the words Repentance and Sin were still holding me back, until Jon Batiste, the bandleader of The Late Show with Steven Colbert, said something I found really helpful. Colbert had asked him his thoughts about the late Congressman John Lewis’ influence on the world, and Jon Batiste said that he saw John Lewis’ legacy as an invitation to growth and change, as opposed to Steven Colbert’s feelings of guilt and shame as motivation for change.For me, an invitation implies that there’s a party to go to, and a pool of energy to tap into that doesn’t have to rely solely on what I can bring with me. That’s what I love about community (and about this blog community especially), that whatever I bring with me takes me to a place where there is so much more of what I need. I’m invited, with all of my questions and doubts and confusion, to join a party that will energize me for the next step in the journey.

At its best, that’s what a writing workshop can do (though if your experiences of writing workshops took place in graduate school, with strict deadlines and competitive classmates, you are probably scoffing right now). My goal with each writing workshop is to respond with a “yes, and” to everyone; to let their ideas lead all of us to more of our own thoughts and feelings, so that we walk away with more gifts than we could have created on our own.

This period of Teshuvah, which starts in mid-August this year, is also coming along at a good time, given the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, and the time for reflection offered by the Covid 19 shut down, with its inevitable emphasis on mortality. In preparing for the writing workshop, I had to think about what I might want to cast out of my life this year, and the first thing on my list would be the time spent beating myself up for the passage of time, and for my turtle slow pace. If I can stop looking at the clock, and the calendar, and the competition, and just focus on my own next step, next year will be a lot more productive, and a lot more fun than this one.

“We need more fun.”

            May we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

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?

Writing Music

            As soon as I admitted to myself that I wanted to write a song, I stopped practicing the ukulele and the recorder. It wasn’t intentional, or even conscious, but when I look back, that’s the timing.

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

            I had been practicing three or four days a week at that point, not every day the way I’d promised myself but not too bad. And I’d been thinking about songwriting for a while, wondering what was stopping me, and wandering around the edges of the idea. And then, I think it was part of Holocaust Remembrance day at my synagogue, the Cantor shared songs with us during his Zoom, and showed us a version of  “Blessed is the Match” in Hebrew and English, based on a poem by Hannah Senesh, and, almost immediately, I wanted to rewrite it.

            Some background, Hannah Senesh was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine as a teenager. She joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli army, and in March 1944, at age 23, she and others parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist with the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to concentration camps. She was caught by the Nazis, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. “Blessed is the Match” was written in Yugoslavia as she prepared for the rescue mission.

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

I went looking for other versions of the song, hoping to find something wonderful, so I wouldn’t have to do the work. I found a few versions, one that sounded like a march, and another that sounded like a dirge, and I was still annoyed by the vague and sentimental way the English sounded, as opposed to the original Hebrew, and I hated the saccharine and schmaltzy orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, I like sentiment and sweetness, but not for this.

“I always like sweet stuff!”

I started working on a new translation that afternoon, looking up possible variations in Google Translate until I came up with a formulation that sounded close to the original Hebrew, at least to me. Except, then I had to match the rhythm and meter of the English to the Hebrew, because I wanted the song to be sung in both languages, and that process helped me understand where the vague and sentimental versions had come from in the first place; matching Hebrew and English rhythms is very hard, because Hebrew is so much more terse than English.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

Blessed is the match that burns in the depths of their hearts

Blessed are the hearts that know death is near and go on

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

“Blessed” isn’t really the right translation for the Hebrew word “Ashrei,” but the more accurate translation, of “grateful” or “happy,” feels misleading, or at least uncomfortable in this context, so I stuck with Blessed.

            I still wasn’t thrilled with my version, but I wanted to start thinking about the music. I wanted a simple, clear, melody. I wanted the melody to do a lot of the work that my translation couldn’t do; I wanted the melody to convey the conflict hiding in the lyrics.

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

            Hannah Senesh’s poem rides a very thin line between suicidality and heroism; a line that needs to be delineated clearly when you are talking about freedom fighters or soldiers. How do you stand up and say that you are willing to put your life at risk, without also sounding like you want to die? How do you express a desire to save others, without pretending to a kind of complete altruism and selflessness that you don’t feel?

            The central image of the poem is of a match that willingly goes out, or knowingly risks going out, for the sake of others. And that image is both beautiful and horrifying; it’s a sacrifice that no one should have to make, and that no one should be asked to make, but it’s a sacrifice that some people will choose to make anyway, in order to save those they love. This is why I didn’t like the saccharine iterations, where the assumption is that you would feel complete happiness in dying for those you love, or the military march versions, which suggest that your patriotism will make you so single minded that you will lack any regrets. I wanted the darkness, and the fear, and the love, and generosity, to be in the music all at the same time. No pressure, though.

            I’m not sure yet why this poem resonated so deeply for me. I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others, but something compelled me to sit down and write music for the first time in forever, just to capture some resonance I couldn’t articulate in words.

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

            But working on the music, and trying different combinations of notes, and trying to count syllables and quarter notes, and trying to remember which keys have which flats and sharps, all opened a wound that seems to have been sitting there, full of puss, for years. I’d managed to tap into a dark morass of feelings of worthlessness and stupidity and guilt and shame that I didn’t know were there.

            As a writer, a long time ago, I was able to find mentors to help me get past the endless rules and criticisms I found in school; I read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and others, and I used freewriting to get to what I wanted to say, instead of what other people found acceptable and impressive. It took a lot of work, and I still get stuck, but I found a path to go down. With music, though, I never found that path. I tried listening to classical music, and I studied voice and piano and guitar, and I really tried to understand what people were saying about how to do it all correctly, but the theories and the math and the rules never made sense to me.

            I have a notebook full of songs from my early teens, but at some point I got stuck and I couldn’t write one more measure. All I heard in my head was, You Don’t Understand Music, Your math is wrong, your harmonies are stupid, and you don’t even know what a chorus is.

            I’ve made a tentative return to practicing ukulele and recorder, though. And I even wrote a poem in Hebrew a couple of weeks ago (most of which came to me in a dream), but the unfinished draft of “Blessed is the Match, with its unmoored musical notes scares me too much. I’m afraid it will be awful, and wrong, and explode in my face if I look too closely.

            I asked Cricket and Ellie to look at the draft for me and, though they are not trained bomb sniffing dogs, and they didn’t notice anything explosive on the paper. But I still can’t look at it, or, God forbid, try to sing it, or sound it out on the keyboard on my phone. Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.

“Are we going swimming?”

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?