Rode the backway through Williamsburg to meet R for lunch, and it was bleak and raining and there were no non-Jews for about 15 blocks. No trees, either, except for a few helpless scraggles. It felt like entering a different time, an older world.
The boys, preparing for Shabbat, were all carrying the same tallis bag. They can’t carry umbrellas, though, on the Sabbath, so their hats were wrapped in plastic bags. The girls went with their heads bare. A pregnant woman in the long, traditional black stood at the door of yet another rusty, tired apartment building, staring out into the grim street scene. It must be so safe, though, because I saw a girl who must’ve been only nine or something, pushing a baby in a carriage, alone. Probably not going far. No one seems to be going far—it is a universe in ten blocks, a cosmos in fifteen.
A building had a plaque by a door that read “ladies’ entrance.” Some signs were in Hebrew. It struck me that I am living right next door to this community. I am within walking distance, though I never walk that way. I am Jewish. I am a married mother, too. My life looks nothing like this.
I sat in the car and stared and wondered what it is like to be a girl here, so close to my home. What is it like to be a woman? To be anyone?
“There are a lot of cities in this city,” Bear said, later, when I mentioned this. He said that NYC is a compilation of all of these little, insular communities. Ours is one, too. It’s strange to think about.
The parents in my neighborhood are always talking about preschools—which are prestigious, which are better, have I signed Eden up yet, for the wait list for the more exclusive wait list for this one down the street? It’s important because of the matriculation rate to Harvard. It’s important to have put her on the path to Harvard, now, at six months. It sounds like a joke, but it actually isn’t. I think I am supposed to have planned for her whole life, already. Or at least through twenty-two or so.
But I was JUST twenty-two, myself. I remember it so clearly. I was standing at the top of Morningside Park, looking over the sunset roofs of Spanish Harlem, the elegant crowns of the sycamores in between, feeling full of social theory and the enormous, cancerous unknown of the rest of my life and the intrigue of sleeping with witty, cultured men.
God, but I had a good childhood, as a homeschooler, running around in the woods, pretending to be magical. Writing books and painting portraits and composing a sound track for a story about a brave girl who has to save the world. I am always trying to get back there, in my imagination, to that wildly open place I lived in. Before college gave me smaller goals and all the rules that come with them. Before I learned the structure of adult dreams.
The downside: I probably learned all the wrong lessons, don’t you think? That’s always the argument. But how will they learn to put up with all the things they don’t like? How will they learn to get through the annoying, difficult, monotonous stuff that fills life? People say that to me. And I wonder if maybe I didn’t learn it. If I’m spoiled. If I expect too much.
I remember not caring about Harvard, not even a little.
I had so much fun, though.
(that’s me, in the yellow silk– silks were a thing)
It makes me think fun is essential.
It makes me want to give Eden that.
But does that mean homeschooling? I can’t tell. I’m intimidated, overwhelmed. I’m not ready to decide. I don’t even want to decide. I want to see what she’s like. I want to see what she likes. I’m just getting to know her. I’m just starting out myself, as a mother, as a grownup, as a city-person, as a writer and a wife. It feels too soon to choose an environment, self-contained, like a beautifully thought-out zoo-pen, to put her, and myself, in. It feels too soon for so many rules.
R was waiting at a chipped wooden table with a jar of fresh-squeezed juice. I walked back in time to hug her. I was wearing a tight turtleneck dress that would be impossible to breastfeed in. It was like nothing had changed, like I wasn’t even a mother. It’d been a while. She looked more fragile than I remembered—thinner. It’s her personal paradox: She seems to gulp the world in, devouring the things around her—swallowing people whole, digesting the entire scene. But she’s also always starving. Her wrists are twigs, she teeters on her stilt heels, her cheekbones cut her skin, her eyes are fierce and enormous. She is obsessed with the next big thing. With finally figuring out the truth. She’s always digging. I guess she’s a true reporter.
Her mind, her life, races ahead. I can’t keep track or keep up. She is writing feature stories for big magazines, being flown all over the country, getting invited to secret, sexy events. She says she’s trying to slow down, but instead she finds herself posting compulsively on instagram.
“I know,” I said, “It’s so hard to stop.”
“You feel like you don’t exist, when you don’t exist on the internet,” she said.
“Sometimes, though,” I said, “I feel like I exist even more.”
“I feel like I am disappearing,” she said. “I have to keep taking pictures of my own face.”
(My face now appears behind Eden’s face as she stares at her own image on the computer screen)
I have always loved her honesty. It’s electrifying, making her brighter instead of weaker for exposing herself. Really, I’m surprised that I don’t feel more like her now, since I always have, in the past. I’m surprised to find myself wanting different things, almost as though it’s sacrilegious, I’m committing a sin against my holy former self.
All the tables around us were full of hipsters who looked like parodies. The same huge glasses and wool caps and ragged hair and tights and bulky grandma sweaters. Williamsburg, with its pale, squinting Jews and pale, unsmiling hipsters felt empty, dead-ended. What is everyone doing there? Why?
Sometimes I feel the smallness New York, like it’s closing in. Like there is only one way to do it. I used to look around and only see famous writers. The pockets of super successful, rich or respected people who all somehow know each other already. Or now, the put-together people who have already organized their children’s lives, who have pointed them, at two-years-old, like an arrow. All the way to here. All the way back here again, to what we imagine success always has to look like.
Sometimes the city feels suffocating.
I should know better. If I learned one thing from growing up on the outside of normal, it’s not that I have to homeschool Eden or not homeschool her or whatever. It’s that you don’t have to do the things that everyone thinks everyone has to do. You can create your own weird, magical world. You can even have fun a lot of the time—it’s OK.
“There are only two rules,” my mom said the other day. “Follow your heart and don’t make decisions based on fear.”
“I just want to do the right thing for her,” I told her, of Eden’s education and life.
“There are a lot of right things,” she said.
We stood outside after lunch, and my toes were freezing in my high-heeled velvety boots. We didn’t seem to know how to say goodbye and I think I lamed out. I miss R and hope that our friendship will open up enough to fit our newly different, opposite-pulling lives.
I was relieved to get home, though, and thaw my toes. I told Bear about the river of black-clad Jews on the sidewalks, which reminded me that it was Shabbat.
“Let’s light the candles,” I said. “Let’s say what we’re thankful for.” That’s how we observe Shabbat. We sing the blessing and we say what we’re thankful for, for the week. My mom did that with us kids, growing up. I think Eden likes to watch the flames.
I thought about all the other Jews in this city, in their apartments in different neighborhoods, so close together and so far apart, doing this now.
I am thankful, for the blurriness of my childhood. For not fitting into something neat and reasonable and regular. I am so thankful for the gift of never really having to be bored.
I don’t want to sit here and figure out Eden’s whole life. That’s her adventure. I want to trust that we’ll facilitate it as she gets older.
Maybe I’m more of a hippie than I thought.
Maybe you just never know how all of these worlds will overlap.
* * *
What community do you live in?
Unroast: Today I love the way I feel like I look when I’m cracking up with people I trust
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