Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Insomnia before your first day (afternoon) of grad school is less than ideal. In fact, it's somewhat annoying. But I can't seem to convince my mind to shut off. What with moving into a new apartment and community, starting school, trying to figure out what to do with my days (since classes are all in the afternoon/evening), and catching up with friends after a productive summer, I'm all awhirl. But these aren't the only things keeping me up.

Forgetting. Sometimes it's the easiest part, and sometimes it's the hardest. Isn't life funny that way? It's scary, really, how quickly one forgets one's previous selves. Ok, let's not kid ourselves here--how quickly I forget my previous selves.

Joan Didion's essay "On Keeping a Notebook" has always resonated with me. I'm not going to be able to write about it comprehensively at 4:00 am, but I've always believed this to be one of her most perceptive lines:

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not."

That line in specific remained in my head; I just went and took down the book to copy it into this post. I intended to proceed from there to my own ruminations on the topic of self and forgetting, but I find that, after all, Didion has done it for me. The proceeding lines read (eerily enough):

"Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."

And it's true. And it's completely terrifying--especially when one has a sneaking suspicion that one is about to lose a person who was better, in many ways, than the one she is now. (I'm back to 'one' again. Forgive me.)

For instance, my previous self didn't write self-indulgent spur-of-the-moment blog posts in the middle of the night and actually post them.

Clearly, I'm degenerating.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How in the world am I to know who and what to believe about myself?

(And don't even think about telling me to block out the other voices and listen to my heart or to my mind. If it was that easy, don't you think I'd have figured it out on my own?)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Water and Reflections

"Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever."
--Moby Dick, page 28

"...And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."
--Moby Dick, page 29

Lead me to the river, set me upon an island, and there will I make my home.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Language as Music, Prism, and Mirror

"He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:

—A day of dappled seaborne clouds.—

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose."
--A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, page 119

Sunday, July 05, 2009


The sweet strains of jazz lured me forward, awaft on the airy blue furrows of the soft breezeless day. With only my whims to follow, I sauntered toward the sound and lurked at the corner of the small gathered crowd. The sign perched in an open guitar case at their feet read “The Baby Soda Jazz Band,” a pile of green bills strewn messily across the black velvet. An older man in a white t-shirt with a grizzled face plucked at a one-string bass, and a thirtysomething adorned with tattoos and sunglasses strummed at a banjo. The low bluegrass twangs melded with the pure jazz of a trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. As I approached, the trumpeter, a man in his seventies with lively eyes, took a solo, clear brassy notes flirting with the melody. The game was picked up by the trombone player, a pretty girl in a backless patchwork sundress, who slipped the golden slide in and out with obvious gusto. With her final notes she turned to the clarinetist, conferring the spotlight upon the tall young man with short blond hair and bright blue eyes, which shut tight as he blew into his instrument. His fingers flew along the black and silver rod and gleeful notes escaped, one following the next, in rapid succession. High, low, high, very high, every single sound precisely on pitch, combining to create a composition specifically tailored to the brightness of the day. I was enthralled, and edged nearer the group.

The music was friendly and welcoming, inviting every live soul in the park to come and enjoy the swinging spirit of the 1920’s made quaint by the passing of time. The upbeat, toe-tapping sounds completely lacked the intimidating exclusivity of radicalism and trendiness, or the snobbery of high-class lyricism and virtuosic expectations. The band members themselves, standing in front of the curves of a black granite bench, radiated no standoffishness, marked no hallowed area for a stage. Spectators, clapping and smiling, stood in a semi-circle around them or sat on the bench directly behind them, participating in the show, exhaling a joy created by music and sunshine, good will and mutual enjoyment.

These musicians sewing sounds to match the scene, weaving their artistry into the weather, were real. They smiled, they chatted, they looked at the crowd and appreciated each hand as it met another to create applause. As they began a new song, an older woman in a pink polo shirt and khaki capris rose from the granite bench beside the band and casually began to sing. Her birdlike voice was not easy to hear above the instruments, but it was clear and trilled, an accessible jazzy siren, familiar enough to make me wish I were singing beside her.

I instinctively liked these people, and their music spoke aloud a simple, glad language. I felt a desperate desire to share in their song, to lend my voice to the instruments, to join them seamlessly, hitting just the right notes, adding to and thickening the harmony. becoming one of their group as effortlessly as cool spray fell from the geysers of the park’s fountain toward the ground. Instead of merely stifling my feelings and passing on, as I have done too often before, I chose to stay, finding an open spot on the bench right behind the performers. I felt emboldened by the sunshine, and as the song ended, I applauded with sincerity, thankful for the generosity of talent shared modestly but without reservation in the open air.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Little pieces first, flakes that flicker as they fly, tiny points of light that scatter like embers and settle, glowing a moment, then gone. But then larger portions, something given never returned, shreds of innocence fleeting. Soon enough it’s noticeable, the chunks missing here, there, you can see it in my eyes. Do they have them, guard them, treasure them? Have they been dissolved, evaporated to invisibility? Assimilated into new forms, living lives of their own? Or were they cast off, like a thing contaminated? They were pure, once, as was I, trust beaming from every pore. Now scratched and duller, I wonder—is it only polish I need? Do souls regenerate? Or will the holes remain, a gaping reminder of lost self, willingly and involuntarily bestowed?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Waking Up

This morning I was woken up by birds. Not the polite, cheerful twittering of movies and sound effects, but a loud, rude, repeated honking. The honking bird would say his bit, and another bird would answer, with a flat, trilling laugh ending in an unpleasant buzz. HO-onk, trill, buzz, HO-onk, trill, buzz—over and over again, at first background noise, then pushing itself steadily into my dreams, bringing with it consciousness. Still mostly asleep, I listened, noted. This was not the honking of taxis I had become accustomed to in the city, not the wailing of sirens, not even the loud clatter of rain on the protruding air conditioner box. The sounds that now intruded on my rest were natural ones—and yet no less obnoxious. With sleep still clinging to me, I smiled a mental smile. The unceasing calls drew me nearer and nearer to open-eyed awareness, and I noticed every crease and whistle, the nuances that made each sound unique, uniquely annoying.

“Oh,” I thought, “it’s good to be home.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


A girl, circa 22 yo, brown hair, brown eyes, full of dreams. Passionate, devoted, excited. Able to see potential and a world bright with magic. Overflowing with words.

If found, please return.
Care of: SJ
A box

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Life That Transcended Limits

My grandfather, a”h, was niftar in Yerushalayim on Shushan Purim. He had just celebrated his 83rd birthday a few days before, on zayin Adar, a birthday he shared with Moshe Rabbeinu.

Today and yesterday were not easy days—I cannot bring myself to comprehend that I will never again see his smiling face, that he will not be a part of my future. Yet, I cannot help but be grateful for the life he lived, the legacy he left. How can I reconcile my personal sadness with my thankfulness for having had the opportunity to know and love such a unique individual? Should my sense of loss be so great that I can feel nothing else? Somehow, I must be able to simultaneously experience both a profound, aching sadness for his absence--this tangible emptiness that fills me up--and a deep thankfulness for the ways in which he affected me, his entire family, and all those who were fortunate enough to meet him. Though his physical presence may be gone, he will live on in his children and grandchildren, in the things we learned from him and the things we will continue to learn from him as the years go by.


Why is it that we only think to write about people once they are gone? There is no way to really capture a person on paper, but it feels more solid than anything else we’ve got. Memories fade—I think that’s the most frightening thing in the world. Stranger yet, memories shift. Without an actual presence, a true reminder, we remake people to fit the things we want to believe about them. We review certain moments and discard others; we turn real people into characters created in our minds. Writing does that, too. But if we write while the person is still real, is still present, we are less likely to fabricate, to tend toward inadvertent steamrollering, converting a three-dimensional person into merely a few facts or anecdotes on a sheet of paper. If the person is still around, he can critique your writing, he can laugh at the deficiencies and quirks of your portrayal; you can add and subtract from it, allow it to develop, as people do. But when someone is gone, it is too late to be completely truthful.

In the fall of 2007, I (briefly) took a class in writing creative non-fiction. On the second day of class, the teacher offhandedly assigned an exercise that he forgot about by the following week, and never asked us to turn in. The task was: write a paragraph beginning, “My grandfather is…”, and proceed to list, with specific detail, items, moments, and ideas that you associate with your relative. Yesterday I dug through the annals of Microsoft Word to find the paragraph I wrote then. It is far from a specimen of my finest writing; it does not come anywhere near close to doing justice to any part of who my Zayde was (“Was”? Using the past tense in conjunction with my grandfather, always so bursting with life, still seems completely incongruous). Yet I feel compelled to share it, as it was (sadly) the only piece of writing I composed about him during his lifetime.

"My Zayde is a lover of life. He is a brilliant nuclear physicist demonstrating bottle rockets to his grandkids in the park, eyes alight. He is mischievous, leading his four sons, the fifth and most excited boy of them all. He is a hike with my father on a mountain, as the sunlight filters, greenish, through the trees. He is a hard worker, sitting for hours poring over equations and sources, singlemindedly focused on his labors, then resurfacing for lunch with the glow of one who has truly earned a break. He is an author, corralling anyone and everyone to read a draft of one of his complex chapters, or to hear about the source for pi he has found in the Torah. When he was young, he was almost an astronaut; he retains the excitement of one who has seen beyond the limits of this world. He is an explorer’s broad-brimmed tan hat with a string hanging down below his chin. He is a ladies man, 80 years old, with an eye for a pretty woman and a flock of devoted female fans. He is a raunchy joke and a hearty laugh. He is a head full of gray hair that grew back after a battle with leukemia that left him just a little thinner, a little weaker. He is two thin, tanned, upraised hands, blessing his sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren Friday night on the Sabbath. My Zayde is a warm hug, as he murmurs into my hair, like a prayer of thanksgiving, “Oh, my darling, darling granddaughter.”'

Saturday, February 28, 2009


I’m walking this road, the narrowest string of land, snaking its way along the edge of an inky ocean. On tiptoe I proceed, inching carefully forward—but after so long my toes are numb, and I don’t even notice the ache, much of the time. But then something glints in my path, and my head wobbles, and I find I’m tipping, and I see the water approaching as I start to fall. It takes an effort to right myself, because it’s so near, and it would be so easy to let go and fly downward to the blue-black depths; a roar in my ears of all the things I’ve lost grasping toward me, enveloping with a clammy heat. I could spend the rest of my life there, in that space full of questions and wistful smiles and answers that ever elude. I’d be stuck, static. I’d drown there. But I’d be so secure. Instead of walking endlessly here where it’s clear but I can’t get away from the water that hovers, wraith-like, at my side. It taunts, calling, waiting to strip me of a bland, teetering reality brimming with denial and hopes I don’t really trust.

Because sometimes I’ve seen my fate—and it’s reflected in a murky sea, flowing gently backwards.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Valmadonna Trust Library at Sotheby's

Assailed by multitudes, sheer numbers overwhelm. Books scale the walls; these books testify to our history, because we are a people committed to the written word, preserving our original thoughts, our ideas, our traditions. Most bindings are leather—deep red, faded brown, crumbling, newly restored. Each labeled with a title, a location, a year. In the first room, the shelves ascend toward the heavens, books lined up neatly, packed next to each other at stiff attention, each modestly fulfilling its role, one slim binding in an army of thousands. Colors and sizes of infinite variation, one plus one plus one plus one, together produce an impression of fantastic proportions, a wealth of knowledge cascading up and down each wall, eternal, insurmountable.

On every shelf several books are propped open, exposing the black specks on yellowed-white within. The lettering is mostly familiar—Rashi script or regular Hebrew—and I can read the pieces of texts on display, excerpts often recognizable but sometimes unusual. Other books contain foreign characters—Latin, Italian—and I can only guess what the words signify. Many of the open pages bear illustrations: Moshe carrying the tablets of the law, the Cohen Gadol in his vestments, a family around a Seder table. And then there are fat young cherubs, scantily clad heralds blowing horns, even the forms of a man and a woman, neither one clothed. I witness these images framing our holy texts; their presence jars my modern eye. Yet when the books were printed, such illustrations were expected, accepted, their existence testified to the importance of the words they adorned. I gaze at the thin black lines that make up the images and I think about debates over whether art history classes may be taught and I marvel at how time and context change the way we think.

An alcove houses the particular treasure of this vast collection: the Bomberg Shaas, a Talmud with a tale. Behind glass the brown-red covers glisten still, thick straps of leather on each binding proclaiming their royal origin, open to pages that have lasted hundreds of years, totally intact. The words of the gemara occupy their usual spot in the middle of each daf; Rashi and Tosfos surround them, stolid companions. But without the super-commentaries, the flourishes we have come to expect, the pages look strangely bare.

On a wall in bold letters a quote from Judah Ibn Tibbon (father of Shmuel Ibn Tibbon, translator of Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim) reads, “Make books your companions; let your bookshelves be your gardens; bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh.” My friend and I stand feet away from these words, and eagerly drink them in. We are bibliophiles; this quote echoes in the hollows of our hearts.

But this quote applies to more than just a couple of nerdy English majors. Look around. See who else has come to breathe in these books. This room is packed. It is full to bursting with people. Yeshiva bochrim in black and white with black hats, young and old men without head coverings, an Orthodox girls’ high school on a field trip, Chassidim with curled payos flying, a woman who davens in my shul at home, a mother and son I met in Scotland—and of course, the YU crowd: students, Presidential Fellows, teachers, Rebbeim, and even the university’s president.

People of books. I am one in a living, thriving crowd; we care deeply about these words, these ideas. We have come to see, to marvel, to appreciate. And so I stand, a
ssailed by multitudes, and the joy of these numbers overwhelms.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Gift Of Sight

The Ponevizher Rav, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, lost everything he had in the Holocaust. His wife, his children, his colleagues, his students—all perished. When he arrived in Israel in 1940, he stood on the hill overlooking the sparsely populated Zichron Meir neighborhood of Bnei Brak. Undaunted by the tragedies of his past, he pointed at each empty patch of land and proclaimed, “Here will be a yeshiva. Here an orphanage. Here a shul.” His optimism seemed nearly insane: his family and talmidim had been butchered, his life’s work lost, and yet here he was, predicting the establishment of an ambitious new community, entirely from scratch

“You’re dreaming,” R’ Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, pronounced.

The Ponevizher Rav responded, “Yes, I am dreaming—but my eyes are open.

The re-established Ponevizh yeshiva eventually became one of the largest in the world, and R’ Kahaneman’s grand visions reality.
It takes a special set of eyes to see in this way. To dream with eyes open is to embrace a different world, a world full of potential. Life offers more when seen through these eyes.

Try. And suddenly see that there in the dark lurk hidden wonders—secrets and mysteries, adventures and possibility. They wait to be found, to be shared. The streets glimmer with promise, a red neon sign blinks in the vast distance like Gatsby’s green light across the bay. The water is still, mermaids dream beneath its depths.

Walk a little way through the silent paths of the park. Stop before a mound in the dim. To some it may appear to be just a big rock, but these eyes see a tiny, tiny mountain, waiting for discovery. Perspective shifts, greatness unveiled.

Sitting atop this tiny mountain, master of an invisible kingdom, thoughts crowd a mind intent on truth. These eyes perceive intellectual potential as well—they recognize that no issue has been predetermined, nothing is black and white. There may be a prescribed position, limits as seemingly concrete as the stone on which you sit, but these eyes pierce diamonds. Cutting with precision, they seek and consider each of the gem’s many faces. Only with an appreciation of each can Truth be found, a whole that shimmers with blinding light.

In the process of contemplation comes a knowledge that spreads inwards; it is a self-knowledge, and these eyes see the bubbling wellsprings of potential that simmer inside you. They recognize God-given abilities and talents, and they encourage dreams that expand these gifts, taking them as high and as far as your 6-year-old, 13-year-old, idealistic 21-year-old self ever hoped to fly. These eyes understand that it is your right—no, obligation—to set out to achieve these dreams, to pursue them with unending determination and perspicacity. They ask, they nag, they push and prod: what have you done to further your dreams today?

The shell that encases, the world’s outer layer, sometimes disappoints. There are shallow moments, thoughtless moments, moments of fear and hatred. Yet beneath it all the sparkle, the glitter. Wear away at that dull lacquer, scratch and hack and break through. This sight impels you to change, not just to observe. What the world thinks, what everyone does, what does it matter? You see the potential for growth—in yourself, in society. Do not give in.

Because here on this mountain you are not alone. An individual, yes, but part of a community, never entirely apart. Who is the one who sits beside you? Some may see jeans, a black skirt, the wrong kind of kippa, hair too short, hair too long—but these eyes see just a person, striving for truth. A person, hurt and confused, elated and inspired, alone, a part of an army. These eyes penetrate, they delay, they do not judge. The surface is not the essence. These eyes see beyond.

The sun begins to rise, and from this vantage point you watch the light reaching out with gentle fingers to touch a single small house on a distant hill. Cream colored with honey-brown trim and a shingled roof; the sun glints off the dormer window, bathing bright flowers lining the cobbled path to its door in a warm golden liquid. This house is more than a house. It stores dreams, preserving them in the face of cold reality, holding them safe against a biting wind. From where you are, with these eyes, you can always see this house—it never disappears.

No matter your age, it is not too late. These eyes never grow blind nor lose their keenness--unless you make that choice. So hold on. If you believe with the tenacity of a child, you will never relinquish this sight—and you will show others how to see with these eyes; you will open hidden doors they would never have known were there. Someone who does this, who shows you the secrets, the reserves of hidden potential in the world, in yourself—such a person has given you a gift beyond compare. That person is a lifegiver; and no matter how far away—in years, in miles—that person cannot be forgotten.

Yet, this sight is not just a gift, but a responsibility. It is not always easy, straining your eyes to see in this way. It demands a lot, an impossible amount: you may not rest, you may never accept. Sometimes you may fail, sometimes the world may return to a gray—but still you press on, trying again, living for the flashes, the knowledge of a more vivid reality. And though the lightning might shock for just one white moment before exposing the trees to a renewed darkness, the memory of that light allows life to creep in, even to the midst of a seemingly impenetrable fog.

So go ahead: dream with eyes open. Hold on to the things that matter most, the people who matter most, the view that spreads the world into a valley before you, majestic in its scope, boundless in its potential. I give you this blessing today: that you may see and never wish to hide, that you may strive and continually discover new reserves of hidden energy, that you may be productive and hopeful--and that your vision may always stay clear.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Questioning A Passion

Is there an inherent validity to a passion, a talent?

If there is something I love to do, but it is not deeply meaningful in an obvious way, do I have the right to pursue it? Is it right to devote huge amounts of time and energy to an activity simply because I enjoy it, because it excites me in a unique way, because it is a side of myself I don't often get to hone? Or is succumbing to such a passion merely a weakness, if that activity is not as significant as other things I could be doing with my time?

What is the point of hobbies, in general? Is there a point? Are they a waste of time?

Am I selfish for wanting this so much, despite the inevitable sacrifices?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

An Awful Epiphany

Why do I write? What's the point? Really--what's the point? I'm actually asking.

It's a passion that has begun to consume me more and more--the desire to write, to paint scenes, emotions with words. Fiction remains the hardest medium for me. Personal essays (like some of the things I write on this blog) and, more recently, somewhat decent poetry are not as painful to produce. And I'm working on several short stories that may have potential.

Tonight I was confronted with a terrifying reality: my father, who has extensive experience with writing and publishing, read some of my recent work. He pronounced it surprisingly good. I asked him: what next? Write a novel, he said. I blanched. I can barely complete a short story--a novel is not going to happen anytime in the near future.

So I asked more insistently: how can I get my poems or short fiction published? He reluctantly imparted that, well, there is really very little to be done with such work. Other than The New Yorker and college literary journals, he said. there are very few venues for short stories and poetry.

The New Yorker is almost impossible to get into. Stern doesn't have a literary journal (another sore subject--don't even make me go into it, thinking about it makes me ill). And so I hit--smack--against a sinister, disillusionary wall. There is nowhere to go. All I can do is sit here.

So I ask again: why bother writing? Writing gives me pleasure, true, but I do not want my writing to be a nice hobby, something to occupy spare hours, documents to gather dust buried in computer folders, ever unseen. I want to reach out, I want to share. I want my writing to live.

I feel sick. My dreams trampled, spattered across the floor. My inspiration flees, whimpering, to hide in a cobwebbed corner. I churn out melodramatic metaphors with reckless abandon. I don't even care how badly written this post is. I'm flailing.

Why write?

There was a time when writing mattered, when dreams were attainable, when I felt safe in the knowledge that if I could produce decent work, it would eventually serve its purpose. I learned to believe this at a time in my life when many doors were opening. Subsequently, things changed, some of the doors began to swing closed, yet I held on tenaciously to the optimistic beliefs that a hopeful time had fostered, trying to stay true to the ideals I had learned.

But now I feel crushed. It was folly, foolishness, unforgivable naivete to believe that all I had to do was write. And now--I feel as though I dare not write, I dare not waste more precious hours in grueling, ecstatic labor only to produce work that will die unfulfilled.

Tonight, I am not a writer. Tonight, I am only a girl without a plan, without marketable skills, without a purpose. I have a headache. I quit.