On Home: Letter to Alexis, a German friend, June 2020

Dear Alexis,

Well, as it turned out, I owed you a letter about home anyway! So let us talk home and house and heimat und die unheimlich. 

When I was a boy I read a wonderful children’s book called the Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater, in which Mr. Plumbean lives in a beautiful house next to several other, uniform beautiful houses. They all look alike. Everyone praises this “neat street”. But one day, a mysterious pelican carrying a can of paint drops said can on Mr. Plumbean’s house, leaving a wild orange splot. Instead of submitting to his neighbor’s demands to restore the house to its suburban conformity, Plumbean paints his house additional wild colors to match and accentuate the splot. Then, when his neighbors come one by one to remonstrate, he convinces them all to make their houses look like “where they like to be, and make it look like all their dreams.” So the street grows heterogeneous and not neat. Lovely little moral about resisting conformity, no?

I am at home in the Northeastern United States, specifically in what we call the Midatlantic states and their coastal cities. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. This part of the world is known by its people, its original people, as “Lenapehoking” or “Lenapehawken”, the Place of the Lenni-Lenape, the Real People, also known as the Delaware tribe. I have read that other Algonquian-speaking peoples sometimes referred to the Lenape as the Grandfather people, some idea of them as progenitors of the other indigenous peoples of the Northeast. I’m not too well informed on that. Unfortunately, the life and history of the Lenape is not integrated into the curriculum of local studies that I was subject to in my youth on their land. They themselves are mostly distantly displaced, largely on reservations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario.

My house is situated on a sedate semi-affluent street in a sedate semi-afflutent part of northwest Philadelphia called Mt. Airy, one neighborhood south of the truly wealthy and White neighborhood Chestnut Hill, and one north of the more impoverished and working class and Black neighborhood of Germantown. We chose the area for its unique history of housing integration, and the role the Jewish community we joined played in that history. The Germantown Jewish Centre was a leading voice in the neighborhood’s efforts to resist blockbusting and redlining and all that racist real estate garbage that is one of the more recent chapters in this nation’s shameful history of discrimination and cruelty. The synagogue is often proud of that history, and sometimes I worry it rests too much on its laurels. Then again, my inbox is full of calls to actions for Black Lives Matter from the indefatigable community listserv, so maybe the kids are all right after all.

What seems to impress most of our visitors are the colors we chose for the house. A lovely sunset orange for the dining room. Bubblegum pink for the stairwell bannister and our bedroom. Purple for the office. It was important to me that the house be colorful, almost garish. I took inspiration from our time in Atenea’s Mexico, which I think flattered and satisfied Atenea. I have lived so much in institutionally grey spaces, spaces where I was not encouraged to think of the walls as my own, spaces where the walls did not cheer me. Now my walls encourage and gladden me, they do not just constrain me, and I am grateful to them.

This house is a product of my father’s wealth, which is, of course, a product of his father’s. The United States was unique in its early permissiveness towards Jews gathering familial wealth. My father is a doctor. His father was an engineer, and claimed once he could have made a fortune if he had invested, as he was invited to, in prefab housing. Are you familiar with the concept? Basically mass produced houses, produced in slabs and easily transported by truck or train to their location, where they could be simply assembled. This sort of housing became hugely popular in the fifties and sixties, leading to a millions of “neat streets” where the houses all looked the same, and a massive housing boom which the population could keep up with but the market couldn’t. But I digress. In any case, I never met a Jew of my grandfather’s generation who didn’t miss out on a fortune if they’d only invested quickly enough, and they all seemed to turn out fine, and their sons turned out fine, and their grandsons turned out like me. 

I think I am beginning to write to you of Heimat, that mysterious notion that could, if possible, answer the question “Where are you from?” Do you see where I’m from? Lenapehoking, where the houses all look the same for the last 70 years. All neat in a row, we go about our lives, which are deeply divided and different from each other. We are suburbs grown wild, a massive pastoral fantasy inflicted on the City. My homeland is this sprawl and contraction, sprawl and contraction. Tsim tsum we call it in kabbalistic Hebrew. The contraction of God to make space for what? For all. For home.

What I like most about the wikipedia article on Heimat was the observation that Martin Luther used the word in his translation of Bereishis 24:7, that is, of the words מֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי, “from the land of my nativity” which goes to show how little Luther knew, both of Torah, and of what the word Heimat would come to mean a mere handful of centuries later. History and Judaism have made a fool of Luther and a mockery of his translation. Why would Avraham avinu, our father Abraham, refer to his birth place as his “homeland”? He does not long for it in a romantic sense, he does not construct it as any more of a pastoral fantasy than his current lived reality, the nomadic life in Canaan. If Avraham has a homeland, he is in it as he speaks, in Canaan which will be called Israel, the land he was promised by the God he believes in unerringly. Stupid Luther. 

So tell me Alexis, what does Heimat mean to you, as a German? To me, German Heimat will always be shadowed by the death of the 6 million Unheimlich, my beloved fellow Jews, who are stubbornly not part of the concept, just as they inhabit it fully and beautifully. I’d say forgive the invocation of the Kollectivschuld, but like, we both know that that’s not how this works. This works where I get to talk about losing a world, and you sit there and wonder how to prevent the nation you were born in (your heimat?) from sinking back into that kind of cruelty, which robs people of a world. You are a person of good conscience, and I believe in your ability to make the world a better place.

Together, me with my unheimlich lost world, and you with your collective guilt in heimat, we’ll find a way forward. 
Love, Mordecai

On Jews, Looting, and Whiteness

As the George Floyd protests spread across the country and the world, my social media flooded with protest news, infographics about police brutality, and calls for solidarity. But there was a note of hesitation, primarily from older white Jews, uncles and bubbes and synagogue friends, commenting on my friends’ posts. They wanted to support the protestors, they really did. But what was all this looting? Why couldn’t the protests proceed “peacefully”? While my wife sent resources explaining the problems inherent in judging Black reactions to police violence, I thought about what in the history of my elders could be causing them so much concern. Too young and too American to be personally haunted by Kristallnacht, I wondered if they were perhaps thinking of a very different night of broken glass.

In the wake of the 1977 New York City Blackout, there were many questions. Con-Ed and the city wrote reports about why the grid had gone down, what could be done in the future to prevent such widespread outages. Grandmaster Caz and countless other DJs wondered what kind of music they could make with the new advanced sound equipment that had been looted from the stores. Sociologists and historians asked why there had been so much looting, especially compared to the similar Blackout of 1965. And one historian, Herbert Gutman, in the New York Times asked, “What about the Kosher Food Riots of 1902?

Despite his example’s specificity, Gutman’s point was broad, and nuanced. He notes the dehumanizing nature of the widespread animal metaphors in the editorials and magazines after the Blackout to discuss the majority Brown and Black looters. Gutman points out that in 1902, contemporary newspapers and commentators used such metaphors to describe the Jewish women who protested sky-rocketing kosher meat prices, many of whom were beaten and arrested. Gutman’s view of history vindicates the Jewish rioters, and by extension the Blackout looters. “Now . . . we know . . . about the world of our mothers and grandmothers. But do we understand enough about ourselves and the world in which the contemporary American poor live to comprehend the pained message that came to us [during the Blackout]?”

If we take Herbert Gutman’s argument at face value, we could see it as a particular tendency of post-Holocaust anti-Fascism. Gutman’s condemnation of the language used by commentators foreshadows Dr. Gregory Stanton’s classification of dehumanization as one of the Ten Stages of Genocide. But if we look closer, we can see an urgent racial message for White Jews that was ignored in 1977. 

Gutman’s empathy was not widespread. The Times ran a series of letter responses to him that howled “How dare you compare my mother and grandmother’s Lower East Side to the Bronx of 1977?” Later that month, Ed Koch would pull ahead in a contentious Mayoral race by condemning looting and crime, promising to campaign for capital punishment in New York state, in an audible racist dog-whistle. Gutman published a response to readers, further equating the Jewish rioters with the struggle of Black looters, citing the history of Black protest contemporary to the kosher meat riots, and comparing a quote from a Mrs. Ablowitz to a line from Langston Hughes.

Arrested during the 1902 disorders, [Mrs. Ablowitz] told a magistrate: “We know our wounds. . . We don’t riot. But if all we did was to weep at home, nobody would notice it.”

The black writer Langston Hughes would have understood Mrs. Ablowitz, and she would have understood Mr. Hughes when he wrote: “Seems like what makes me crazy has no effect on you/ I’m gonna keep on doing until you’re crazy too.”

Mrs. Ablowitz and Mr. Hughes did not share a common history. But a thin line connected them. A space filled with animal metaphors did not separate them.

Gutman speaks to Jews who had immigrant mothers and grandmothers in the riots, 2nd and 3rd generation American Jews, largely White and Ashkenazi. He draws an explicit line between their economic struggles and their insurrectionary politics and the poverty and rioting of Black and Brown New Yorkers in his time. In doing so, this middle aged White Jewish labor scholar showed himself significantly to the left of his community, who roundly rejected the comparison he was making.

The truth is, we are in a similarly divided position today on the Jewish left. Race remains a deeply controversial issue, with some of us examining our privileges as a community, and others wondering, what privileges? The shades of post-Holocaust leftism in Gutman’s argument may be less resonant to us, but the six million remain ever-present in our organizing. 

Karen R. Bodkin, in her insightful “How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America” looks at the evolution of Whiteness to include the waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who came over in the so-called “Golden Age” of Immigration. She posits this process was completed with the cementing economic advantages of the G.I. Bill and redlining post World War II, the exact generation Gutman addresses in his New York Times op-ed. In light of her work, Gutman’s op-ed takes on a very different mission. 

Gutman is asking White Jews to remember the bad old days, when a Jew had no business talking to the police. When hunger was everywhere, and the prices climbed higher every day. Remember the fury, remember the insult, Professor Gutman seems to say. Remember the pain. And let it explode, outward. Now do you understand? Now are you with them, or against them?

In our grandparents’ day, Whiteness called to us as a safe haven, a place of rest and prosperity. Never mind its obvious contradictions and ambivalence towards us. We could make it here, in this country, if we played along. The George Floyd uprising, and the increasingly frequent cries from Jews of Color, demand our attention as White Jews. Every moment of Black insurrectionary violence is an invitation to all Americans but particularly to those of us with our own histories of suffering and struggle. We can remember the Jewish revolutionary program, the calls from within the tradition for Justice, our martyrs, our heroes. We can join our fellow Black Jews and other Black comrades in the street. Or we can continue accepting the dubious promise of White Supremacy that if we ignore our neighbors’ suffering and stand by the authorities, then we will stay safe.

Amy Cooper in the Ramble

Currently on twitter, and maybe elsewhere, a video is circulating of a white woman named Amy Cooper. Cooper was walking her dog without a leash in the Ramble in Central Park, when a Black man named Christian Cooper approached her to ask her to leash her dog. At this point, according to Christian Cooper and his sister, who posted a video of the encounter, Amy Cooper almost immediately turned hostile. The video that Christian Cooper shot shows Amy Cooper threatening to call the police and to tell them that “an African American man” is threatening her life.


It is frightening, although not shocking, how quickly Amy Cooper summons a vulnerable tremor to her voice. Likewise her confidence that she can call the state apparatus’ violence to her service is terrifying but expected. All this has been written about more eloquently by other commentators.


I’ll just add a little historical and geographical perspective. The Ramble was created by Frederick Law Olmsted as his touch of “real” wilderness to a Central Park that he was constantly tweaking to make less “artificial”. It is located roughly 4 blocks south of the southern bound of Seneca Village, the first settlement of free Black New Yorkers on Manhattan.

Seneca Village, of course, was claimed by eminent domain and dynamited to make Central Park. The stones of the AME Zion church of Seneca Village, which was built in 1853, just 4 years before the evictions and razing, might be repurposed in the wall bordering the park around 82nd. No one knows for sure. Twice in the history of the Park, some graves have turned up. There’s a small plaque, put up in the 90s, after Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s book, The Park And the People “rediscovered” the history of the Village. That’s about it.

Amy Cooper, and all white Americans, including me, are allowed to forget what land they walk on, the people it belonged to or who belonged to the Land. They guard that ignorance with threats of violence, which the state, which exerts authority over the land and its people, is happy to back up. Memory and history are powerful tools that can make a deep contribution to justice, but ultimately, they are not enough. We must dismantle the systems that are built on these graves.

Coney Island and Washington Heights, circa 2015

I have an unfortunate tendency to refer to the nearest large body of water as “an ocean.” It’s unfortunate, because sometimes it is inaccurate, but much more unfortunate because it is not always beautiful. I find it much lovelier to think of all water as “the sea.” And how much more bountiful! There are only four oceans, but there are famously seven seas. To sail them was to know the world.

I used to attempt to know the world from the bottom of my foot up. I would take long, meandering walks in my city. Flanerie is the term, derived from the French Flaneur. To wander, to peruse, to aimlessly loiter. To know the sea from the bottom of your foot up is tricky. The sea erases what you learn as your foot wiggles down, down, into the sand. The waves are crashing and pushing you back, your foot and the sea bottom, the mud, is holding you in place, you may break in two!

But of course my city is the same as the sea. Sometimes the waves are history, sometimes the waves are money. You wiggle your toes against the wet pavement in summer, and you can almost feel the city pushing you, trying to rob you of this memory, all memories and time in the city. For now, the asphalt is hot, the water is cool, the spray of the fire hydrant, that crystalline fount! In French, the bottom of an ocean is a fond, which sounds quite similar to fount, although instead of water springing up, it is water pushing down, the underneath of water, what your feet move in when you are in the sea, what you must push against to get out of the sea. 

But of course my city is different than the sea. To leave, to be moved out of my city, you don’t need to push against anything, you just lift your feet, and let the waves of money and forgetting push you right out.

Our Plague Year: Dreamland

It was getting easier. I’m very lucky, and have a good home, a wonderful wife and even a companionable cat. Some friends live in the area and can pay visits on our porch, where we sit at a medically recommended six feet distance, with masks on. Groceries come by delivery, and the occasional necessary trip to the grocery store was getting, if not less harrowing, then at least, more predictably frightening. The diseased world turned, and we were getting on with life. But then the dreams started.

Each day was survived, and put aside. At night, I first quiet my thoughts, sanding the sharp edges off them as best I can, and then I let them tumble around a bit, before falling asleep. Whatever comes up is allowed to come and go, and overthinking blends seamlessly into sleep and dream. But now, I find myself in a different world every night.

In this dream world, I parade down streets, as bold as brass, face uncovered. I meet friends and family, and I embrace them. I go to restaurants and eat delicious food. I sit in quiet contentment as I watch my niece and nephews play, my sisters chatting with me about this and that. I am free to go where I like when I like. And there is no virus.

I wake up terribly heavy, if not sobbing. Sometimes, I resist waking up at all. I stay in the Dream world, the COVID-19 Free World, for hours. I wake up at 11:30, noon, 1 pm. I have been asleep for 13 hours, and my wife is worried. I can not ease her worry. I miss dreaming, and wish to return. I walk through my life, thinner and thinner. I wonder, will I be here at all in a few more weeks?

I call my mother to tell her I miss her. She seems tired too. I talk to my friends, and their own sadness mingles with mine. Finally, I ask, what have YOU been dreaming?

“I eat at restaurants with friends,” sighs one friend.

“I’m in the park, having a picnic,” says another.

We’re all of us sliding away into fantasy. This world can no longer engage and fascinate as it could. It is a dull landscape in the newspaper. Just deaths and political incompetence. Dreamland looms ever larger. I’ll meet you there.

Pharaoh

I have a cat. The phrase “I have a cat” shows the utter paucity of the current idiom in expressing the nature of relationships between the human and the non-human. What do I own, in this cat? His comings and goings I have asserted some say over, through the perplexing technology of doors and windows. His food and water I pay for and distribute. This is the summation of my proprietary claim. His passions and internal life are his own – as are mine. His motivations and desires are intensely private, I have no notion of them. He is, in every sense, his own cat. In what sense is he “my cat”?

Perhaps it is better, than saying I have a cat, to say that I am in relation with this cat. Our lives are intertwined, in this house, in this world. I own his food, which is to say, my food is his. I own this house he lives in, which is to say, my house is his house. He is my guest, and as such, we are bound by a complex ritual of gifts and respect. Pharaoh is the name of my cat.

Even his name-which he does not respond to reliably, as if to say, “is it my name? How curious.”-is not mine, or not exactly. This cat came into my life by way of a neighbor named Jane. Jane’s lot in life was a tragic one, and I do not feel comfortable telling her story for her, but suffice it to say our paths diverged when she was evicted from the building next to mine. But before that, most spring evenings, Jane would come to her porch and scream for this cat to come inside. She would bellow . . . something.

When Jane was evicted, and the cat was abandoned and then adopted by me and Atenea, my wife, it turns out that we couldn’t agree on what it was that Jane would shout every night. I had heard “Nero,” Atenea, “Pharaoh. We agreed either way, it boded ill to name a cat after a tyrant. We settled on updating his full name to “Pharaoh-Let-My-People-Go the cat” and called it a day.

There is a long tradition of writing about cats, and I’m afraid the majority of it is rather twee. There is a tendency toward tongue-in-cheek descriptions of them, or worse, writing from their perspective. “My human” makes a jocular appearance. The phrase “feline grace” tends to be abused. I struggle to understand why this should be so. Obviously, one of our main reactions to cats falls under the heading of cuteness. We are filled with the warm feelings of protectiveness and joy that fill us when we look at a baby. We want to cuddle them. I’m not denying that warmth of feeling, but I still think that reducing the relationship between humanity and their domesticated companions to cuteness is missing something.

There is some writing about cats that I enjoy. The Old Irish poet of Pangur Bán seems to me to have struck a lovely note of equanimity with his cat. Together they stalk through the night, him with his books, the cat with its prey. This, to me, gets much closer to the heart of the joy of living amongst animals, high above the simple adorableness of any given creature. We see ourselves in alien forms. Watching Pharaoh, I am lithe and listless, or I am curled and at peace, or joyfully leaping from perch to perch. He is my soul in miniature, seeking warmth and curiously exploring.

Our Plague Year: How we keep busy, how we keep going and the ones we are losing

They say we live in extraordinary times and should keep notes. They say we will be valuable to historians. It’s nice to think of value returning to us, as we stay home to avoid the virus, as we pace our cages, as we rot. So here’s my effort.

I wake up at 11 AM and the day no longer feels defeated. There was a time when, if I woke up anytime after, let’s say 9, I would feel myself a reprobate, somehow failing in a sacred duty. This harsh, moral self-assessment is less plausible in social isolation. So much has slowed down, so few people truly work a full day, and those that do are usually hailed as heroes of one type or another. It’s a nice thing about heroes: you don’t have to be one if you don’t want to.

So I wake up late and I still feel full of potential, still feel there is a day to be lived. Within that first hour-as automatic as dressing, washing up, eating breakfast-I check my social websites. Facebook, Email, Twitter. It takes the place of my father and mother’s ritual of a morning newspaper, which, as the academic Benedict Anderson pointed out, took the place of our ancestors’ ritual of morning prayer. It was a pre-virus habit that remains part of my routine, but lately I’ve been wondering why it should. Facebook and email and Twitter add so much noise and so little information, and that information is so specialized, so tailored to my appetites, that I rarely learn from them. But the noise is pleasant enough, consisting as it does of my friends and family.

I begin a complicated range of social initiatives. Calls, emails, text messages in various texting formats, weighing in on various internet forums, chatting with my wife and our temporary housemate, a friend of mine from school who we invited to live with us to avoid loneliness during “Shelter in Place.” Some days these pay off, I have charming interesting conversations with friends I miss, we discuss literature and politics and our hopes and dreams. Some days, everyone’s scared, we say almost nothing that is not a fear. Some days we say nothing in particular. What is there to say? Today was much like yesterday.

By this time I am hungry. I cook and eat. After lunch, I either have a good day (More socializing, maybe some reading, maybe some writing, maybe a call with my family) or a bad day (endless refreshing of social media, fearful glimpses of news sites, staring at the wall of uncertainty about the future.) Another meal passes, the evening finishes with a streaming opera or movie, or more socializing, or more fear, or soothing words from a friend or loved one, or simply scrolling through options until we grow tired and go to bed.

Options are a big part of our lives. It is the liberty that we were promised, or so we’re told. We can choose, for example, between flavors of toothpaste, and dozens of groceries online. We can see hundreds of movies. We can read millions of books. We can follow or not follow any celebrity on any number of platforms. We can not go outside the house.

We are holding on, we are holding our breaths, we wish we were holding each other. We hope, we despair, we cry, we sigh, we shop. We shop in masks and gloves. We are furtive in public, guilty even. What did we do? We walked too close together. Every day there are new statistics, slowed rates, numbers of beds, new measures to be taken, deaths. Every day there are new scandals, an incompetence, a blurted cruelty, a betrayal, deaths. The obituaries are coming faster. I know because I’ve always followed the obituaries section of the New York Times on Twitter, and compared to before, it’s really hopping now. Little corners of history are popping up all the time. A great jazz musician has died. A rock star. An advocate for the disabled. A teacher.

We are still here. We are still breathing, hotly and sourly inside our masks, deeply to remind ourselves we’re fine, shallowly on our respirators. We’ll keep living, in our houses, in our cars, in our shit jobs that don’t pay us enough but won’t let us stop working. What else can we do? It is the beginning of a disastrous century. What else can we say?

Writing to #FreeThemALL Pt. 3

To raise money for The New York Immigrant Fund’s Let My People Go campaign, I offered to write at least 200 words for whoever gave at least 18 dollars, on the topic of their choice. The offer is still standing, and I’m still writing, but here is a piece I wrote, on the topic of “Embodiment”

I go to a fairly unique school, an ongoing daring experiment in radical education called Goddard College. The school’s keystone feature is its low-residency programs, where students spend only 8 days at the start of a semester on the Vermont campus, and then the rest of the semester sending in work from their various locations. Having spent my 20’s elsewise, I am now, at 33, in the process of completing a bachelor’s degree there, among many other non-traditional students.

Goddard has split its undergraduate program into two different residencies. The residencies are not identical. The Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in Writing, which is sizeable and is usually the larger residency, shares space with the more interdisciplinary Bachelor’s in Individualized Studies. The other, smaller residency consists of other Individualized Bachelor students, and students in Sustainability, as well as the program in Health Arts and Sciences. Though I consider myself to be getting a degree in writing, due to a scheduling issue in my first semester, I was placed in the smaller residency, with the farmers, and the healers. I have stayed there ever since.

Goddard’s approach to teaching healing, as you may have guessed by now, is extremely divergent from, say, a medical school or pre-med program. Students focus on nutrition, herbalism, acupuncture, non-western modalities of healing, art and music therapies. There is a good deal of cross-pollination between the programs that share residencies, and a word that comes up often, about sustainability values, about writing, about healing, is embodiment. How do we embody our work? How do we express it in our limbs, where does our creativity live, how are we feeling?

This fascination with the body has proven inconvenient for me. I have never trusted my body. I have rarely trusted those who DO trust their body. There is a metaphor in the second book of Kings, and it appears again in Isaiah, about how, if relied on, the Pharaoh of Egypt will prove a splintered reed staff: he will shatter, and pierce the hand. That is the body to me, as I have known from the age when I first realized that one day I will grow old and die.

The body will eventually betray our efforts to stay alive. Why trust it? Why exercise it? Why keep it healthy or whole, when ultimately, all those efforts will fail? Any faith in the body is a kind of foolishness, and worse, a sort of arrogance. Oh, so YOU are not going to grow decrepit, weak and pitiful, and then die, huh? Just you or your whole family? Oh just you. Nice, sounds good, good luck with that.

But I do try to listen to my classmates, I do try to respect the new viewpoints that Goddard is bringing into my life. Specifically, I was moved by the work of Jamie Lee Finch, a relationship and embodiment coach who works with ex-evangelical Christians in Nashville. As Jamie says, our bodies are people, not problems. We do not fix them. We ask them what they need.

This attempt to communicate with the body, which I would also call Embodiment, has done more good for me than any diet or yoga routine or exercise, which, I will admit, I still do not do. I may have not learned how to preserve the body, but I have learned to respect it. The body, when it is weak, is not pitiful, it is communicating that it needs nourishment or rest. The body, when it is ill is not disgusting, it is crying out. And the body, when it is dying, is simply relinquishing its duty to hold the self, and what comes next, the body can not know, and can not be blamed for that ignorance.

Writing to #FreeThemALL pt. 2

Today, to raise money for The New York Immigrant Fund’s Let My People Go campaign, I offered to write at least 200 words for whoever gave at least 18 dollars, on the topic of their choice. The offer is still standing, and I’m still writing, but here is the second piece I wrote, on the topic of “Joy”

The great gift of depression is empathy. When you tell people that you are or have been depressed, they search through their recent lives, and some even dive into their past, to tell you their own woes, to say, “I too, know sadness.” While the selfishness of the disease itself inures and numbs one to these sad stories, eventually, as recovery begins, and the nerves tingle to life, they all come flooding in, the weight of the world, all the misery that you yourself have been seeking out and focusing on. All this to say: there have been moments when joy has been hard to come by. But as recovery continues, and you push through to the other side, those moments make it so that joy always feels hard won and precious.

I’m not much of a dancer. This causes conflict with Atenea, my wife, who, as a Mexican, literally doesn’t understand how the citizens of United States spend their physical education classes if they don’t spend them dancing. Atenea insists I dance with her, despite my explanation that Jews only dance in great numbers, that the splendor of Jewish dance is dozens, if not hundreds of Jews circling each other in a solemn shuffle. Atenea moves with a hip-shaking, sinuous ease that I would find incredibly erotic, if I wasn’t cursing at my feet for not being able to pick themselves up and move with her.

One day, at about 11 o’clock at night after a day of helping a friend move, I was allowing my muscles to cool, when Atenea began crying. This was alarming, but not unusual. My wife has a huge and stubbornly tender heart, and she remains open to the possibility of crying at least once a week, if not more frequently. I asked her what was wrong. “Celso Piña died!” she wailed. “Oh no!” I said. Then, after a moments hesitation, I asked, “who’s Celso Piña?”

In response, Atenea, after staring agape at me in horror for a few minutes, and repeating his name, to no change in bewildered affect from me, put on a song of Celso Piña, the master of Cumbia. Then she got up, and began dancing. Then she put out her hands to me, as the tears dried on her face, and her hips moved.

I groaned. “Atenea, please.” I had been on my feet all day, sometimes lifting quite heavy things. “Mo!” she said sternly, bobbing her head to the rhythm. “Atenea, please,” I said quietly. It was so late. She did a turn, then gave me a fierce look. “Mo, he died. He’s dead, Mo. Today.” I stood up, and we danced three songs before I could lie down and go to sleep. My body ached, and I had stubbed my toe. It was the happiest night of my life.

Writing to #FreeThemALL

Today, to raise money for The New York Immigrant Fund’s Let My People Go campaign, I offered to write at least 200 words for whoever gave at least 18 dollars, on the topic of their choice. The offer is still standing, and I’m still writing, but here is the first piece I wrote, on the topic of “Someone who taught you something important about Peace”

So many men have taught me about war. When asked for stories of his time in the Second World War in the US Marine Corps, my grandfather used to shrug his shoulders and say, “Ever seen a 10 X 4 truck? Stack that about your height high with bodies. That’s war.” My father was a Civil War buff, he’d take us to the battlefields on family vacations; Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam. He’d point out at the rolling hills of the United States and comment on advantageous positioning of guns and cannon, flanks of ghostly Yanks and Rebs. Then there were my actual teachers, of course, and the politicians on tv, and my neighbors who hung flags up, and the movies.

Mostly what I’ve learned is there is nothing so self-effacing as a war. “Oh, I think I’m more of a police action, don’t you?” “I’m a national security policy, that’s all.” “I’m protecting our interests overseas, not a war as such.” “Just a brief rebellion about to be put down.” And then suddenly they’re “conflicts.” The developing conflict in the Balkans. The ongoing conflict in the Middle East. The eternal conflict between Good and Evil, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of THAT line.

It is much harder to discern who has taught me about Peace. Peace in what sense? What peace have I known, here at the end and beginning of two disastrous centuries? But the truth is, I’ve seen very little of war, like most Americans my age and class. Our wars are cowards, they hide from us overseas, where they bully and demean others. So I am a curiosity of the ages, come see the boy who knows not war and knows not peace.

All the same, I’ll share a memory with you. I used to study Latin. My sister gave me the bug for it, she took it so she could improve her already robust vocabulary and I took it to be like her. By high school I was studying under Mr. M, a sad-eyed, Catholic educated man who had never moved away from our hometown. Mr. M was a classic depressive, with a defeated posture and a low, hushed voice, but all the same, something about him always reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps the air of humbled Americana that oozed off him once I discovered he’d been a boy scout and still collected baseball cards. He seemed to hate Latin, pity us, his hormonal students, and to generally be going through the motions until his pension was good enough to retire. He always seemed bemused that I cared about the subject he taught, just as my sister had.

One day, a student brought a guitar to class. Mr. M asked to see it. As soon as it was in his hands, a remarkable but quiet transformation took place. Mr. M folded around the guitar, lovingly. He sat on the edge of his desk and began to play. We got no declining or conjugating done that day. The guitar never left his hands. Occasionally he’d softly sing into the increasing roar of us having our teenaged conversations. He was happy to just hold a guitar, stealing time from the city school district. He was happy, and at peace.