Monday, August 30, 2010

the adventures of fudge in sarah lawrence land

magical realism, according to wikipedia (that venerated source of all knowledge), is defined as "an aesthetic style or genre in literature in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality." should that fail to float your boat, it also offers matthew strecher's broader take: "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something 'too strange to believe'."

well, these definitions are very nice. here's mine: "what happens when fudge goes to sarah lawrence."

up is down in so many ways there, it's hard for me to pick where to start. maybe i should begin by noting that this is not a bad, right-is-wrong kind of's a through-the-looking-glass kind of thing. i really do feel like alice in wonderland. we started orientation this week, so i've been up there all day, every day, and it's like entering another world: a remote, secluded place, with green lawns that roll on forever, winding hilly roads that never seem to go anywhere, patches of woods (woods!) with animals (animals!) poking around through leaves, and pretty much every other thing i do not associate with new york. in my entire collegiate career, never ever have i accidentally walked to another county on my quest for a particular lecture room. in midtown manhattan, if you get really lost, you might end up on the other side of the block.

i think one of the helpful Older Grad Students put it best. "welcome to the shire!" he would shout, cheerfully, to each new student. that is how it feels. it also reminds me vaguely of a sort of ritzy summer camp me and my brothers used to go to in wisconsin. located in one of the posher suburbs, the school was for smart children whose parents would much rather have them learn human genetics over the summer break than skip rope. to get to it, our bus would meander over dirt roads and little streams, past enormous gated estates with driveway circles you could fit my whole house in and flower arrangements i bet needed full time staff. i remember as a kid how i used to press my face to the window as we drove past and imagine what kinds of people lived in those houses. dukes? (yeah, that's all i could come up with).

you get a similar sensation as you amble around slc, which you do a lot of, because they have 500 buildings spread generously across acres of campus, and each person you need to speak to is located in a different house (many of them are houses). as i wondered in amazement how undergrads pulled off these kind of between-class switches, i passed several beautiful, enchanted-looking mansions. more like palaces. i stopped and stared at one. it was very quiet at that part of the road: no cars, no people. just some birds and a little bit of a breeze, and elaborate hedgework.

i have heard some of the other grad students talk about where they live. some live in brownstones close to the campus. some live in new jersey. some live in greenwich village (how? isn't that the most expensive place on earth?) some even live on the upper west side.

but as far as i can tell, none of them go back to what i go back to at the end of the day. i take my train back to the bronx, where i switch to another bus that lets me off at the gwb, and trek home over sidewalks crammed full of everything from empty soda cans and used napkins to dog poop and puke. without noticing it, i've cultivated the habit of watching my feet while i walk, because if you don't look where you're steppin' you got only yourself to blame for what you step into. i make it home to my building, which is nice - i like my building - and to my apartment - like that too- but is the size, all in all, of one slc parking space. as i said, these are not bad things. but they are DIFFERENT things. it is disconcerting to travel between worlds, and to understand for the first time that not everyone really knows the world you live in exists. i have been so used to hanging out here in the heights with my friends, none of whom bat an eyelash at the neighborhood we ended up in; it is normal here, even for those of us who come from more rural areas.

and that's another thing that's a little surreal about slc: for the first time in my student life, my peer group is completely foreign to me. i never felt a sense of homogeny at stern - so many different viewpoints, minhagim, ambitions - but there was a sense of underlying unity. at the end of the day, we understood the basics about each other, almost by definition. i imagine most of the time we didn't even think about it. to each other, we were normal.

not so when you're the only orthodox jew in your program, and probably one of a handful on an entire campus. i know there are other jews - i hear jewish names in passing, and have even met a few- but i have seen no one else trudging up and down all these hills in ninety degree humidity wearing a crewneck shirt and a skirt. part of all these orientation activities are familiar to me, because this is my second year working at a college, and i have a feel for the thoughts and intentions that go into them. but part of me feels like i float around campus in an impermeable glass bubble, my soggy tuna sandwich in tow. the writing program features many formal/informal events, like poetry readings or magazine scout-outs, which are held in bars and have food ordered in. i feel stricken. (i can admit that here, right?) i am not the hipster with black rim glasses* and a pack of smokes in her back pocket and blue hair, and on a day full of other registration activities, i munch on packets of animal crackers instead of the spreads they've set out everywhere. this was par for the course in wisconsin, but i haven't done it in awhile, and i'm out of practice. it's funny how rusty you get. i am used to going to college, i am used to there being food everywhere, i am used to it being kosher. it's not even a question. am i fleishig or milthig: that's a question. but at slc, i am not the audience; not mainstream. i am so unthought of that final registrations (and alternate registrations) are due only on saturday; the deans' office is amenable to my request for another plan, but it's up to me to figure one out.

and it makes me think of how funny we all are, all us stern and yu students and alums, so involved in the scandals and trials of our own circles that we never notice how small we are to the rest of the world. our galaxies are like pinholes to them. the shidduch crisis? are you kidding?

i kind of like being reminded of this, for two reasons. first, after a year or two of working for yu, and four years of attending, it's easy to get sucked into the politics and minutia and the money and think depressing things. but when i contemplate going to a place like sarah lawrence for undergrad - and it would have been one of my dream schools, in twelfth grade- the need for a place like stern becomes unquestionable to me. there is simply no other place i can think of that has the ability to replicate a real college experience for orthodox students: no other place where it will be totally a hundred percent normal for you to keep kosher, where any guy who flirts with you is fair game**, where the coolest class in your department will never conflict with rosh hoshana and sukkot. i understand that this is less of an issue if you're living at home and commuting to cuny or even uwm. i get that. but for the rest of the world, for people like me, i couldn't have had those four years anywhere else. i probably would have loved attending a place like slc as an undergrad - but at such a young and critical stage of life, when self-identity is so malleable, i'm not sure who i would have become, and perhaps even more importantly, who i would have become it with.

the second reason runs the opposite extreme. i almost like being tractor-beamed out of the jewish washington heights scene and into sarah lawrence for its weirdly cooling effect. it really is sort of like being zapped to the moon and glancing back at the earth. things that seem all-consuming here - who are you dating? who are you having for shabbos? - feel distant and squinty over there. dating? maybe i just haven't picked this up yet, but i sense zero stress about dating from the other students in my program. it's just not something they're worried about. you do, you don't, it's a casual thing, without the significance and structure dating has in the orthodox world. with all the goods and bads that come with that mindset.

i realize from the last couple posts i've written one could be forgiven for thinking dating is all we think about up in da heights (or at least, all i think about, anyway). it's unfair of me to represent it that way, and i don't want to minimalize the things i love about here. hand in hand with the immediacy and stress of everyone knowing each other is that it feels like a family. you are forever running into people who make you smile, forever surrounded by fun people doing fun things, people you admire and can learn from, friends who are there for you after a bad day at work and will snort their way through "love story" with you even in the best of times. it's possible to feel like you actually belong here in a way that is sometimes difficult to achieve even in the places we grew up (which are different now, and haven't really been home in years). that's the great, colorful, warm part of the heights. at the end of the day, we are all, as my friend likes to say, "one big dysfunctional 'friends' episode."

and that's the part i'm not sure about, at slc. these students are mindblowing: they are insightful, cultured, incredibly stylish (ahh! somebody style me!). many of them have been doing things for years on a professional level that make my jaw drop. many of them are also kind, friendly, curious - everything that you need to start great friendships.

but will i be friends with these peers of mine? will i ever fit, with my packed lunches and long sleeves and brochas that i make silently which have people frowning at me with troubled looks on their faces? will i fit with them, glamorous and american in ways i've never truly identified as? do i need to, to learn from them or to succeed? and if i don't or i can't or choose not to - how will that evolve? how will i manage it?

i won't lie: a lot of that is probably just as much from awe as anything else. these people are accomplished and really, really smart. i feel a little bit like an impostor. thrilled that i have the opportunity to get better? you betcha. drooling over the course catalog? ditto. but man, i rarely sound as articulate as they do before their first coffee. and by rarely i mean 'with a scripted speech.'

so that's some of the cognitive dissonance i've been grappling with: itty bitty orthodox girl in a biiiiig world, cramped queen o' the stackable shelves vs The Only Thing We Have More Of Than Buildings is Lawns, i try to write when i can vs I Write Six Hours Every Day in a Log Cabin Overlooking a Stream While Eating Scones. either way, i am still very, very excited to see what comes next. maybe they'll let me live in the course catalog for a little flat word form...

*so i have black-rimmed glasses, but they don't work on me. explain.

**right? right?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sandcastle Manifesto

We all have our frustrations, especially in dating. Here is mine: I have the haunting sensation that I’m building sandcastles on the beach. I build and sculpt and craft, and in the back of my mind even as I build I mourn my work. My hands mold the sand, with care, thought, and when I permit myself, with affection; but I know with unrelieved certainty that it will all be washed away by the tide. I build now, but it will be as if my hands never touched the sand. I build, but I will shape only mud.

They say this about the Jews in Egypt, that one of the most debilitating tasks the Pharoah assigned to break them was to force Jews to build on quicksand (was it quicksand?). As soon as you laid down one round of bricks, they were swallowed into the earth. Effort wasted, in vain, without purpose: this is what broke the Jews. And there are moments when the futility of it stumps me, too. I get a funny taste at the back of my mouth. It is difficult to look at the flat, wet sand and dip your hands in again.

When a recent breakup loomed, inescapable, on my horizon, I found myself struggling with a feeling that is mostly foreign to me: anger. I was very angry. It was a formless anger, too, because I had no idea who I was angry at, or what about. I had not been hurt or wronged. It wasn't going to work out. Sometimes things don’t. There had been and would be nothing especially awful about it. Yet talking with my mother on webcam, agonizing about whether it was really necessary, whether there was anything I could do differently, listening as she repeated to me what I already knew, at some point I gave up and cried. Was it embarrassing? Sure. But listen, if you can’t cry in front of your mother…right?

My mother is tough. She’s tougher than me, for sure. And so I count on her to be tough for me sometimes. She is my drill sergeant: she makes me run when I’m too tired to walk, forces me to do the things I don’t want to do so I can learn that they are not too hard, not undoable, and next time, I won’t be afraid of them. She has no time for nonsense and even less for self-pity. And she has no doubts.
So I froze when, on the web cam, watching me cry, my mother suddenly stopped trying to reason with me and began to sob herself.

“What do you want me to tell you?” she said. “What do you want me to say? How am I supposed to know what will happen? I can promise you that everything will be okay, but I would be lying. I don’t know how things will turn out. What do you want me to do for you?”

I sat there, looking at her, too surprised to say anything. There are so many things that happen behind the scenes in your life. Your bosses, your friends, but I think especially your parents. You forget that there are things they don’t show you. It never occurred to me that it hurt my mother, tough as nails and always right, to see me unhappy, just as it never occurred to me that there were problems she could not fix, questions she did not have answers to.

I had always brought my problems to her. Each time I would end with: “So what do you think I should do?” And she would tell me. Sometimes she would say, “Figure it out,” but in my head I knew that just meant, “Figure it out for yourself—you’re 16/18/21!” not “Figure it out because I don’t know.” She always had the right card hidden up her sleeve, and she would produce it with a flourish once I’d deduced it for myself.

But this time she had no trump.

It dovetailed with something a friend of mine likes to say. “You can’t depend on other people to make you happy,” she says. “If you can’t make yourself happy, no one can do it for you.” Usually when she talks about this, she is talking about the danger—scarily everywhere and invisible in the Orthodox community—of perceiving marriage as a solution. “Nothing you’re miserable about now gets made better by complicating it with another person,” she says. “If you have issues before you get married, you will have issues after you get married.” Usually I agree with her about this. It makes sense to me that if you wait for a guy to solve your struggles for you, you will be waiting a long time. But I had never really listened to what she was saying before. You can’t depend on other people to make you happy—not guys, not friends, not even your mother.

It’s not that you can’t trust them, or that they wouldn’t do everything in their power to see you happy, or that they don’t help. Of course they care. Of course they help. But to make you, at the core of your being, a happy person? A fulfilled person? A person whose life has meaning?

Who builds meaningfully.

That’s the work of a lifetime. How could any other person do that for you?

“Your sister,” my mother said, “is upset that we didn’t buy her the toy she wanted in the store today. If I buy you that, will you be happy?”

I sat there, tissues knotted in my hand, and looked at her. I was not crying anymore. It suddenly seemed silly to me that I had cried. I felt bad that I had made my mother cry—-I had asked her to do something impossible, repeatedly, and it wasn’t fair. I was an adult, with an adult’s problems, now. It was not my mother’s job, not my mother’s role, to make me happy anymore, just as it was not my best friends’ and would not be my husband’s. This time, I realized, it was up to me. Up to me to wash my hands in the water, clear the debris and keep building-—not for nothing, not in vain, but because I choose to believe one day, something will stand. Because I want it to. Because I will work at it.

Because nothing is easy, and you have to work to make a life that is worth living. And if you accept that there is no alternative—as I do—then there is nothing else to be done, and no point in complaining about it.

Looking at my mother, thinking this, it dawned on me that I didn’t need her to know what to do. I knew what to do. It was hard, and some of it would be painful, but it was the only way. And I felt a weird sense of relief and responsibility, taking this burden off my mother’s shoulders and putting it back on my own, where it belonged. For the first time, I understand that I must try to face my fears and my frustrations entirely alone-—but by doing this, I am also empowering myself to find their answers.

I charge myself with the mission of my own happiness. I will remember and pursue the things I came here to do. I will cultivate the beauty I find, between people and in the complex and intricate world around me, and remember my connection to my Creator. These things will stay. I will not let bitterness and defeat define me.

I will not be a slave without G-d in Egypt.