Rosh Hashanah is over.
In the parking lot, on my way into the synagogue, I stopped to talk to some congregants and I was being all professional and grown up and they were asking if this service would be very different from the one the day before, and I was explaining how we were doing a participatory Torah study and it should be very engaging and fun and then a bug landed on my shirt and everyone saw it and went “Oh!” I played it cool and laughed like it didn’t even matter because bugs don’t scare me because I’m too professional for that. I nonchalantly brushed it, which caused it to fall down my shirt, into the place where my bra was trying its very best but still mostly failing to give me some cleavage. The bug had lots of little legs, and wings, and they were all moving at once.
“Oh no!” everyone said. And then they paused politely.
“It should be really nice,” I said. “We’re chanting the morning blessings to this lovely new melody.”
“It just went down your shirt,” said a kind, stately gentleman.
“I know,” I said, smiling brightly. “Um.”
I turned around and leaned over and pulled my shirt down, and I prayed that no one was looking out of any of the sanctuary windows at that moment, because they would’ve seen a lot of cantorial bra.
(the traditional Rosh Hashanah treat, no bugs allowed. source)
It made me grin, thinking about it in the middle of the silent amidah, where you can pray to yourself or read the traditional text (I never read the text, I still have no idea what it says, even though I’ve seen it hundreds and hundreds of times) midway through the service. I almost laughed aloud.
I get nervous about performing these services, even though I’ve been doing them for years. I hate that I get nervous. I think I should be more confident. I should revel in it. I should love the feel of everyone’s eyes on me. I should throw back my head and sing with my whole heart. I should lean into the mic. I should improvise with some little twirly things, like Christina Aguilera. I should probably lift my hands up and start gesturing.
I do, I do. I throw my head back sometimes. But sometimes I’m thinking, shit shit shit, you missed a word, what is wrong with you?? You should know this whole thing by memory already! Don’t mess up again! Oh god, here comes that long part with all the weird consonants. If you mess this up, you’ll probably just stop, and then there will be this really long, horrible silence, and everyone will be looking at you and thinking that you’re an idiot who can’t do your job and the board will already be thinking about holding auditions for a better cantor and you will ALWAYS ALWAYS remember this day as the worst, most humiliating day of your life. Shit shit shit.
I reminded myself that my friend just had her second baby. Yeah, second. She has two kids now. OK, so we don’t talk that much anymore. She’s way too busy. But I think about her a lot, like a dork, and how different from mine her life is. And how I can’t imagine being her, but I’m sort of jealous. And how she just had a BABY and I’m getting nervous about singing some Hebrew.
“You looked so grown up up there,” said my dad, after. He looked a little teary.
“I told him you’re still pretty immature,” said my mom, cracking herself up.
“True,” I said. “It’s all an illusion.”
But it’s not. I’m an adult now. I know. Not because of my job where I lead the congregation. Not because of my breasts which have reached their apologetic-looking but final stage of development. But because of something I just caught myself doing for the first time, over Rosh Hashanah: talking to kids like a lame grownup.
Yup. I did the thing that all grownups do. This is how it went:
Me: Oh my god, is that Leah? I haven’t seen you since you were a little kid!
Smiling, long-suffering girl: Yeah! Happy new year!
Me: How old are you now? Fifteen? Sixteen?
Girl: I’m seventeen.
Me: Wow! Seventeen! Wow. I must be old. So, are you thinking about college, then?
Girl: Yup. I am.
Me: Great! That’s…great. You’re so tall now!
Girl: (laughs weakly) Yeah…
Me: (wants for a moment to kill self) OK! Happy new year!
(just reading my script! oh, wait… no, not this one. the boring one. source)
I used to tutor kids at the synagogue, prep them for their bat and bar mitzvahs. I started when I was sixteen or seventeen, and did that for at least five years. Now the first class of kids I worked with is graduating college. Going to grad school. Going to rehab.
After services, I was starving, and I stopped at the supermarket. One of my former students was working there. She had scars on her arms. She was happy to see me. She said she’s out of rehab now. She said, “I love your hair!”
I said, “I didn’t see you at services…So you’re good? Everything’s good?”
Even though she had just said rehab, and there was this whole story in the air between us, but I didn’t know what else to say, and I was wearing heels and she had pink hair and I felt so much taller than her. So weirdly far away.
I loved that kid. She was one of my favorites. Spunky and gothy and clever.
It’s easy to fall into this routine. Of staying on the safe surface, especially when you just have a few minutes. Especially when your lives are so separate, the way kids’ and adults’ lives are.
I didn’t really know how to act around kids when I was a kid. They seemed to have their own secret language, covert body language signals that they were flashing at each other when I glanced down, or even when I looked right at them.
I don’t know how to act around kids now, but I’m a grownup, so I can just say my lines.
“What? Going to college already?! I am ancient! You are big now! I bet you’re going to a lot of parties! Yay college! So fun!”
Please. I don’t care if they’re going to college. Kids are under so much damn pressure to go to college. To get into the absolute best possible one. Like that’s the only thing that matters in the world.
I didn’t go to parties in college. I didn’t want to go to college, actually, and then, when I was there, I set out to prove myself like my butt was on fire (actually, I have no idea what proving yourself with a fiery butt would look like, realistically speaking). When I was seventeen and eighteen I felt fully formed and serious. I felt like I knew myself. I was a lot more righteous. I was like me now, but condensed, unfiltered. I wrote pretty good poetry.
Grownups used to say to me, “So, you partying?” and I’d want so badly to roll my eyes.
Maybe there just isn’t time to have a better conversation. We’re always running into each other in passing. But maybe we also don’t really try. Maybe we draw too many lines between ourselves. I am older, you are younger, so there’s nothing to talk about here. I am younger, you are older, so we can’t understand each other. We feel awkward. Casual socializing—so fundamental—is always at least a little awkward.
There’s so much I could talk about with these new seventeen-year-olds. When I was seventeen, I dated an emotionally unstable boy who, like ballast I couldn’t manage to shed, pulled me deeper under a surface I hardly remembered. I wrote slam poems about the things that magazines tell us about our bodies, just with the covers, just with the expressions the models wear. I was furious. I was inspired. I was sad and victorious. There’s so much I could talk about with the former students who just graduated college. When I had just graduated college, I flung myself headlong into grad school, sure that it was the only option. I was desperate to keep going, to show everyone that I was on the right path, when really, I wasn’t on a path at all, I was just wearing special high tech path-projecting glasses. The grownups you meet then say, “What’s next?” and you want to have something to report. You want to look like you have it together. They only ask you like three questions about your whole life, and you want to have the right answers.
(the path-projecting glasses. also why i looked like such a dweeb at this point in my life. source)
Maybe if we grownups would stop reciting lines from the same script, things would get more interesting. More realistic. Maybe if we would all stop copying each other’s flat phrases we could think of some of our own instead.
People used to ask me about prom when I was a young teenager. “Are you going to prom? Are you excited about it?”
I wasn’t going to school. None of the questions grownups had for me worked. Which was good, I think, because they had to come up with new things for me. We had to sometimes really talk.
I think I’ll write to the girl with the scars. In case she wants to really talk. In case I do.
On my way into the sanctuary, I ran into a congregant in the hall. One of those Jews who only comes on the high holidays, so I only see him once a year.
Him: L’shanah tovah! How are you? You’re so grown up. I remember when you were, what? Sixteen?
Me: L’shanah tovah. Yeah…Life is funny.
Him: So you’re, what? Finishing up college? Starting grad school?
Me: What? (freezes, shocked) No, no, I’m done with that. I’m writing.
Him: Oh, writing. You have a book deal?
Me: Oh…no. No, I don’t. Hopefully one day!
Him: Well, good for you. Sounds like fun. Very relaxing.
Me: And you?
Him: Same old, same old…Just work.
Me: Yeah. Well, good.
Him: You married? I thought I heard you were married?
Me: Yes! I got married two year ago.
Him: Two years! God, I’m old. I can’t believe it. That’s great. Thinking about kids?
And there you have it. Life, in four distinct themes. College, job, marriage, kids. I feel this enormous pressure to get a book deal, so that I have something to report back to the adults in the hall. Because I’m still a kid around grownups, even as I’m a grownup around kids. And maybe none of these confusing divisions would matter nearly so much if we didn’t keep asking each other the same questions. If instead, for a few minutes, or for an hour, or for whatever amount of time, we threw out the script and just talked about our lives. There are great stories there. Surprising ones. Inspiring ones. Hilarious and quiet and scandalous and practical ones. Stories that might lead to the stories about the scars on our arms or the reason we cut off all our hair or why we really want to have a baby or why we really don’t. And even when there is only a minute and you are only running into each other in the lobby, there are different questions that can be asked. “What are you up to these days? Oh, college? What do you like best about it? How’s the dining hall food? I know…all I ate was Lucky Charms…” Sometimes I want to say, “College? What’s the worst part of it? What’s the weirdest?” Or “What are you thinking about these days?” That’s the most interesting one of all.
(ever heard one of these things blown? it’s a shofar, a ram’s horn, and it’s blown during the high holidays. it’s really loud and rough and rude sounding. it’s supposed to wake us up and make us pay attention to our lives. source)
* * *
Unroast: Today I love the way like three pieces of my hair are sticking straight up, with no regard for all of the other pieces at all. Someone’s got to start the revolution.
P.S. This piece feels SO long and ungainly, but I am leaving in the bug story anyway, because it was fun to write.