I used to think that if I could change something about myself it’d be my nose. I’d give myself this straight, fine, elfin nose that authors are always ascribing to the faces of graceful women characters. The kind of women who look good even when they’re really tired.
And then I thought that it would be my neck. To be a graceful woman, you need a long, slender neck, according to so many movies. I have watched too many movies, probably. I probably care too much about grace.
And then, later, I thought, no, I need my legs to be different—longer, leaner, more coltish. Coltish because we women are always basing our beauty on very young things.
But right now, I don’t really care about any of that. If I could change something, it would be inside my head. I would change this strange fragility. This dangling blown glass orb of my mind that catches the light and spills tiny rainbows everywhere, but that is always waiting for the fall. That shudders at being brushed against, spinning, bobbing, set into frantic motion.
Of course I’m a writer, I think sometimes, when I’m angry at my mind. Writers are classically depressed, stereotypically anxious. Writers dance along the thin line of sanity, slipping eloquently over sometimes, describing it in all the right adjectives.
Writers are often a little unhinged.
Or maybe they just tell us about it.
In under two days, I’ll be standing up in front of the congregation again, singing so many prayers I can hardly keep them straight. I’ll be wearing all white. The year will have slid around again on its greased axis, and here we are at the beginning. I worked with a rabbi for four years in this synagogue and he died two days ago. He was young. It was pancreatic cancer. He wasn’t always nice to me. Sometimes he made me cry on the bima, and I had to bow my head and hide it so that the congregation wouldn’t see. Sometimes he was very nice to me. He drove to my college to practice for Rosh Hashanah with me. We sat in the common room in my dorm building, and the girls walking by looked at us curiously. Him with his beard and kippah, obviously much older than me. I remember he had this rainbow umbrella with him. He hugged me by his car, and I felt for a second like I was his daughter. Once he said that the sister of a bar mitzvah boy looked great in her dress, and then he told me I didn’t have the hips to pull off a look like that. I miss him in this weird way that I don’t even understand.
After he left the synagogue, we never spoke. And then when I found out he was dying, I never wrote. Why didn’t I write?
And now he’s dead. Just before Rosh Hashanah. And I feel guilty and other things that mostly sit in my stomach and don’t care to explain themselves.
I feel fragile. Someone wrote a comment on facebook, when I posted that silly Anne Hathaway piece I wrote. He said “I don’t see the point of this…” Jerk. Who says that? Who feels the need to tell someone under their piece that there’s no point to it? Why do people need to leave these little bombs under the things other people write? It feels like a minefield.
I stood in the shower, composing a hundred responses in my head. “Glad you felt the need to tell me. Maybe you should try writing professionally before you critique someone who’s doing it.” “It’s a funny little humor piece! It’s not SUPPOSED to have a point! Why are you so pretentious?” “Get a life!” “ASSHOLE.” “Consider yourself unfriended, loser.” Yeah. That would show him. A grand unfriending. A flourish of pointer finger on touchpad, a decisive final click
I wrote back, “You don’t see the point of what?”
He didn’t respond.
I left it at that.
What if I said something mean and then he said something meaner?
My hands were shaking.
Please, god, I thought, I can’t handle any meanness right now.
That is the fragility. How it works. Suddenly, I might break. One tap. One flick. Shattered.
So embarrassing. So horribly embarrassing. What is wrong with my composition? With my chemicals? With my interpretations? With my neural pathways?
It’s not always like this. I am not always this fragile. But I think I should never be. I think it is a failure of will. The way that people sometimes hate themselves for giving in and eating something decadent. I hate myself for giving in to this weakness. For allowing my hands to shake over nothing.
Three agents want to see my book. Before I even sent a query letter, three agents. I think I should be doing some kind of jig, or at least learning to do one. But I am bad at prolonged joy. It comes in quick bursts and when it leaves, I am surprisingly worse off, sometimes. I think, “I can’t mess this up now!” That’s the way my logic works. Don’t mess this up. Don’t you dare mess this up now!
“I must have been an anxious child,” I told my parents last night when I was in NJ for rehearsals.
They looked at each other. And then they both disagreed. No, they said. Not anxious. “You wanted to make everything perfect,” said my dad. “You had an idea of how it should be.”
I was oddly relieved. Not an anxious child. Maybe there’s hope. Just a child who needed everything to be perfect. What the hell is perfect? What a stupid goal. OK, so I was a dumb kid. And here I am, a dumb grownup. A dumb grownup who doesn’t know the first thing about celebration, but has memorized the labyrinthine routes logic takes to get to self-defeat.
Who is, believe it or not, actually pretty happy these days, when she is not being made of blown glass.
I’d like to think I’ve come a certain safe distance from the grad school days of having no idea what was coming next and eating only occasionally. When I was dating a guy I couldn’t manage to fall in love with just because he’d published a lot of papers and wore preppy clothes and I thought I should be with someone respectable this time.
Now I am at least in love and at least it is with Bear. And I am writing, which is the thing I’ve always wanted. And I looked at a terrible picture of myself the other day, and I just laughed and thought it was funny. There was no bitter aftertaste. No rush of self-doubt. No sag of disappointment.
But some days, I wake up fragile anyway. Inexplicably. I wake up innocent, thin-skinned, helpless. I am knocked off balance by everything. I can’t believe that he is dead, for one. A man who knew everything, who knew what everyone else should be doing. But who sometimes laughed at my jokes anyway. I can’t sort out my feelings.
It’s not really like this, but I’m thinking of when I was twelve and I used to visit this elderly woman in a dim, pungent home for the elderly, and there was this guy there, in a wheelchair, who used to call to me, “Come here, little girl, and sit on my lap! You’re so pretty!” And he would say, “Come into my room, little girl, I’ll teach you how to have a good time.” So I went right home and reported him to my mom. “He is sexually harassing me,” I said, because I was well-read. And my mom reported him to the director of the program that had connected me with the very sweet elderly woman I visited, and the director of the program marched in there and yelled at the man in the wheelchair. He broke down and cried, she told my mom. It was that detail that circled my mind over and over again after he died, a few weeks later. He cried. I made him cry. And now he is dead. I felt, on some level, that it was my fault he was dead. You know what? I still feel sort of guilty.
The rabbi I worked with was not a creepy old man. He was a complex, brilliant, vivacious young man who made me cry.
What are you going to do? Life doesn’t make sense. There isn’t a name for every feeling.
I had to get on a train and leave. I felt like Rosh Hashanah was barreling at me like a truck with a texting driver. I felt like I knew nothing about literary agents and I should be doing a lot of research. I felt like my dreams were supposed to be coming true, and that’s a lot of pressure. I felt like I think about death a lot. I felt too fragile.
I went back to the city from NJ. And then I took a train from Grand Central, up to New Haven, where my brother has just started grad school. And here I am, sitting on his couch, which used to be my couch, looking out the window at unfamiliar, low rooftops. His elegant, evil cat has finally agreed to sit on my lap. My mind feels a little firmer, already.
* * *
I don’t even know what to ask you here, but of course I want to hear your thoughts, as always. As long as they’re not, you know, not mean
Unroast: Today I love the way I look without earrings. Naked ears! I used to think I always had to wear earrings or I looked like a dude.
P.S. You won’t hear from me at the beginning of next week because I’ll be singing at my synagogue until Wednesday. But then I’ll be back, with fascinating stories! Or I’ll just be really tired.