Falling into Autumn

As I heard on the radio this morning, I am like the majority of Americans–fall is my favorite season. Fall brings weather I like (at least back home), clothing that makes me comfortable, a few of my favorite holidays, my birthday, and, because I’ve been tied to an academic calendar for so long, a sense of beginning, of possibility. The same feeling I get with a new notebook.

So it took me by surprise today when I thought it was all over.

I had gone to the doctor for an ultrasound because I’d been having some mild pelvic pain. It was over cautious, really, but as I’ve already experienced one breast cancer scare, I don’t like to take chances, and my doctor agreed. I have no idea how to look at an ultrasound, especially if it’s not a well-developed baby I’m looking at. So the technician is moving the wand around in there, and this big black blob shows up in the picture. She is interested in this blob. She keeps measuring it from all different angles. I am trying to remain calm, even crack a joke with her, but she is all business, which scares me. When she’s done, she tells me to wait outside the lab area for my blood pressure and other vitals to be taken. So I sit.

Before I’ve been there even a minute, my eyes fill with tears. I have cancer. My kids will have no mother. I am going to get very sick, have treatments that will make me very sick, and then I am going to die. I cannot stop. Maybe it is a panic attack. But there I am in the hallway with tears running down my face. I am not like this. I’m not much of a crier, not a hypochondriac, but I realize that I was terrified. My doctor walks by and sees this mess. “What happened? Did she find something? I haven’t even seen them yet! Come with me, you’re fine, we don’t need your blood pressure.”

She whisked me to her office, where she looked at the results and told me repeatedly that everything was fine and entirely normal. The blob looked big on the screen but was a typical follicle, unusual in no way. I mopped my face and blew my nose. She sent me on my way with a hug and instructions to freak out about something else. She probably thought I was nuts, but she was very nice about it.

For the rest of the day I should have been elated. I’d been to the brink of death, and I’d been pardoned. I could go home to my family. But I was in a fog. I wandered around in stores, hoping to find a dress to wear for Rosh HaShanah. Everything looked weird or meant for a much older woman. And I was dressed for the gym, not shopping. I bought a hair dryer.

Later when I went to pick up my daughter from school, I missed my turn and found myself on a bridge headed out of the city. A few careful moves later, I pulled up to her school just as she came out. I texted my husband. “I’m going to need a good long hug when you get home. I’m a mess.”

By the time I’d put away the groceries, I felt more calm, and I took the dog out for a walk. My dog loves me like no one else. You can see it in the way he looks at me. lookofloveWhen I’m in the right mood, the dog walk is perfect. It was cool outside, I was feeling better, and Max was being good, not pulling on the leash. He did his business, and when I bent down to clean it up, my back objected. Strongly. I stood up slowly and “ambled” home. My daughter helped me sit on the couch. My husband came home and gave me alcohol. The ibuprofen is kicking in, too. So I can feel the return of that September mood, that sensation that things will be clean and new, that I can make them that way and begin again. I can’t bend over right now, but maybe upright and eyes forward  is the best way to greet the new year. L’Shanah Tovah.

Writer’s Envy

So, your friend got his work published in yet another magazine, did he? How does that make you feel? It can be  difficult to enjoy your friends’ successes, no matter how authentic your love for them, if you are not enjoying successes of your own. Most of the time when I am feeling this way, I take an honest look at my efforts. How much/how often have I been writing? How much/how often have I been submitting? The answers to these questions are always the same. Not enough, not nearly enough. And probably a lot less than the friends who are doing better. This actually cheers me up, because I can do something about it. I can write. I can at least try. And now that so many journals are electronic, and the submission processes are electronic, it’s not the time-consuming chore it used to be. Excuses are only that. Sorry, but you’ll have to do the work. Put your behind in the chair. Etc. There, don’t you feel better?

There’s another kind of envy I suffer from that I have never been good at fixing. It’s envy of what other people have, how they live. Given how many people live quite happily on less than we have, and how many people don’t even have food to eat or a decent place to lay their heads at night, this envy has a backhand: I feel like a jerk for feeling it in the first place. This one’s not so easy. We hear all the time stories of people who overcome hardship or live with an illness or have some other large trouble, and they have these amazing positive attitudes. They say things like, “I’m glad to have another day,” and “I have everything I need,” or “I’m praying for the person who did this to me.” And I always think, “Oh, I wish I could be like that”–I wish I could put a positive spin on things and be the kind of smiling, pleasant person that others gravitate toward and for whom good things happen. But I am known, I think, for being someone who speaks her mind, and I can promise you the friends that characteristic wins over are some pretty tough, solid folk, small in number.

So how to appreciate what I have? Reevaluating my situation from time to time, actually thinking, what is it I want that I don’t have, goes a long way. Because except for maybe a house that doesn’t need a new roof, I want stupid things–a piece of clothing, or jewelry, or shoes. And I don’t need any of those. I mean, I have plenty. Another solution is to find work to do that allows me to get to know some people whose lives have less “stuff” in them than mine. This requires that I stop staring at my navel and look outward.

As the Jewish New Year approaches, Jews are encouraged to repent for wrongdoing on their own behalf but also on behalf of the entire community. This is so smart, because it makes us think about other people in a constructive and sensitive way. We are a community, after all, and what one of us does affects the rest. Religious people might add “in the eyes of God,” but even without that caveat, this seems an important idea, and one that could help me stop thinking about me, and what I want and why I don’t have it.

Don’t think I’ve become that Claudia of my dreams, however. I’m pretty pissed off that my beautiful, smart, funny children have been saddled with lifelong problems just because they hit the biological jackpot. I’m angry as hell at the university department that let me go jobless. And when people try to put a positive spin on it for me–“It’s so great that you have a diagnosis” “Lucky that you caught it when you did” “It’s a good time for you to be unemployed”–I get even angrier, even if I’m smiling and acknowledging that yes, these things are true. But new shoes and even a new roof can wait a bit longer.

Covering “the Other Color”

  I’m wrapped up in another one of those what-kind-of-feminist-are-you debates with myself, and it’s making me more neurotic than usual. My hair, my dark brown hair, is salt and pepper, heavy on the salt. Sometimes when I look at it, I think it looks pretty cool, especially with the bright white streak up in front. Other times I wonder what has possessed me to go ahead and look so old. I mean, I’m not old-old. I’m still in my forties. Photo on 9-15-14

For a little while longer.

  And I have always been a fan of hair color, the weirder the better. I’ve had purple hair, and once I even had a streak that was blue, purple, and magenta. I’ve had “orchid” hair. I’ve used reds, too. But it’s not the same when you’re covering something. When you get roots you have to deal with, and the roots are white.

  I know I want to look younger for reasons that haven’t won my approval. I will feel more attractive. That’s because despite knowing better, I have bought into our younger-is-better culture. This is especially true for women. All I have to do to prove it is try to get service in a store when a younger woman is trying too. I have become invisible. I’ve fallen off people’s I-might-like-to-do-her radar. Men and women. It’s sad.

  But I should be happy!

  For many years I could not walk down a street without being verbally harassed by men who thought it was their right to comment on my appearance, who imagined I was there simply for them to look at. “Smile!” they’d say. “Hey, baby, why don’t you back that up over here?” And then some guys who liked to cut right to the chase: “Sit on my face, angel.” Mostly I ignored it, and sometimes I went after them, verbally. When a guy actually grabbed my ass, I chased him for two blocks. He said, “Jeez–sorry.” Like I was out of line or perhaps overly sensitive to molestation. A bicyclist actually once got in an accident because he was so busy staring at me. These are not boasts. It was disgusting and a constant source of stress. You don’t have to be gorgeous to get this kind of attention. But you do have to be younger.

  So now this doesn’t happen. Partly it’s because of where I live, but mostly it’s because I have white hair and a mom butt. How wonderful! No more rapey compliments, no more being forced to interact with creepy strangers or turn down drinks at the bar. So why am I sad?

  I have learned, as most of us have, to need affirmation from all people everywhere all the time. As a woman, I feel it is required that I am attractive. I know that’s not true, of course, but I still feel that way. I want people I don’t know to think I’m beautiful. The Claudia that sees this as pathetic has let the white hair come in, in all its glory. The other Claudia, the one who shaves her armpits, gets her legs waxed, and puts on makeup (though not in the picture above, for some foolish reason) is looking at hair color on Pinterest.

  Fight the Power! That’s what I tell myself. And that works, for a little while. Maybe it’s having a beautiful daughter who is growing up in obvious ways that brings this to light more starkly. She is at an age when she is ridiculously self-conscious and also completely lacking in self-consciousness. It is very easy for us to embarrass her–we just act the way we always do–but she’s oblivious to many things that surprise me. She does not shave her armpits or her legs. And she doesn’t seem to care. And no other kids have commented on it. And it didn’t stop the boys at summer camp for digging her in a big way. I respect this tremendously. I hope she always feels that she can do what she likes with her body, that she needn’t let others dictate her appearance.

  Ultimately, it’s up to me what I do with my hair, and if I choose to color it, I need to own that choice and not beat myself up for giving in to ageism and sexism.  As long as I choose what I want, as opposed to what I imagine I need, I’ll be fine. I will follow my daughter’s example, and try to move blissfully through the world with my self intact.

Hebrew School Dropout

(Go Back to Cheder)

FrenchieI really was a Hebrew School dropout. I never had a bat mitzvah, never finished the formal Jewish education I was “supposed” to have as a kid.

Like a lot of Jewish kids, I hated going–it sucked to spend the entire day at regular school only to have to put in two more hours, twice a week, after school. I didn’t mind being Jewish, most of the time (Christmas was tricky), but I didn’t feel anything about it. It didn’t  matter to me as a religious feeling, or a culture and set of traditions. I  wasn’t ashamed of it, and I may even have been proud, but I didn’t care a whole lot.

Since I lived in New York, I didn’t have much trouble with my identity as a Jew, except Monday through Friday, 8:00-3:00. People think of the city as a Jewish place, and of course, compared to the rest of the U.S., it is. When I was going to school in the 1970s, though, on the edge of Spanish Harlem, I spent my days in a school where the only other Jews were my older brother and most of the teachers. My friends and classmates were black, Dominican, Puerto Rican. With the exception of one Muslim kid (I’ll never forget you, Abdul), everyone was Catholic or AME.

At home, our building was one of the last before the entrance to the FDR Drive, the road that people took to get on bridges out of the city. Between us and the highway were a few brownstones, a vocational school, and a gas station. The presence of the gas station shows how “on the edge” of the city we lived. We were in the heart of it, sure, but it was a short walk to the East River. It was also a short walk to the place where the subway comes up out of the ground, where the rents are lower because the train may rush past your window. It was an even shorter walk to the projects many of my friends lived in. It was its own kind of edge.

I played outside all the time (as we did back then), with kids from my building or block. We played with Matchbox cars; we played red light, green light; red rover; tag; hide and seek. After I read Harriet the Spy, I used to sit with a small spiral notepad and pencil under the windows of first-floor apartments, hoping to overhear some morsel worth recording. We rode bikes and got in fights, and ran across 96th Street to play in Whitey’s Park, where Mr. White would unlock balls and other playthings from a small building that also housed bathrooms. And if we fell down, Whitey put mercurochrome on our raggedy knees and let us blow the bright liquid into patterns before it dried. He must have been a city employee; such a full-service playground is unimaginable to me now.

I had a mouth on me–it came from defending myself regularly, not just against taunts, but fists, too. I threw around the f-bomb expertly by the time I was in 4th grade. I kinda had to. I was a “honky Jew,” who “hated Christmas,” and didn’t look like everyone in my class. My first boyfriend (the dimples he had! That afro!)  was influenced to dump me after a week by classmates who felt he needed to be reminded I was white. And I didn’t think of myself as white. Not the way they meant it. They meant people who had lots of money and ate mayonnaise on their sandwiches and had blue eyes, and went skiing. People who weren’t ethnic or lower middle class.

And I was so envious of the black girls’ hair, and their braids and exotic hairdos their moms gave them. I had thin, fine hair, and it didn’t do anything good. I was envious of the clothes the other girls wore. My parents never let me have shoes with heels, or coats with fake fur trim. The year those coats were “the thing,” Mom and Dad got me a red plaid wool coat, double-breasted, with two rows of gold-colored buttons. I could feel the punches I was going to get long before they landed.

When it was time for Hebrew School, my brother and I would walk out of Harlem and up the hill to Park and Madison Avenues, then downtown a little way to our synagogue. The change in scenery helped prepare me for the change in culture I was expected to make on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Usually, there was a bit of time to play outside, so we did, but then off to classes to learn the Hebrew language, prayer, history, Torah. My classmates all went to school at places quite different from mine–either P.S. 6, which was in the kind of neighborhood where all the kids were white and middle class, or any of a number of private schools. They were nothing like my friends. I did not get along with most of them, and most of them did not know what to make of me. They tormented me in different ways, especially after I was forced to return to class after weeks of playing hooky.

I didn’t like the kids, but after a while I didn’t care much for the God the teachers taught, either. It turns out children can have crises of faith, and mine came when we learned about Cain and Abel. I got stuck on the part of the story in which they give offerings to God, and Cain gives God fruit which he finds on the ground, and is therefore overripe, maybe bruised, whatever. These days, of course, I’d have argued that he was a fruitarian, but at the time I was sensitive to the plight of those who have less, surrounded as I was by rich white kids. I asked the  teacher, “But what if that was all Cain had to give?” My anger at this terrible God, this insensitive unseen, was boiling up in me. I was outraged, but I asked the question as politely as I could.

“That’s not the point of the story,” the teacher said. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I went. So, no bat mitzvah.

My daughter’s bat mitzvah is in January. She hated Hebrew School and felt different from a lot of the kids there. She thought they were snooty. I wish she liked it. But that’s how it is. Is anything different for her, though? She never would have been able to drop out as I did; we live in a car-centered city. She was picked up and driven to Hebrew School. She is going to finish what she started. She feels at home in our synagogue, even if she doesn’t want to be there.

But she believes in God, and I don’t.