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.


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.

Our Plague Year: Spots of color

I exclusively wore yellow shirts between the ages of 15 and 27. It was a desperate adolescent affectation, a hail-mary pass attempt at a personality, that simply continued way, way too long due to depression and stubbornness. Despite that, there are bright spots. Many friends who I made in that era fondly associate me with bright colors, and I learned a handful of semi-interesting facts about yellow: that butterflies raised away from other input will associate it with food more readily than other colors; that schizophrenics find it soothing; that it represents faith in european heraldry, and the Orisha Oshun in Ifá.

Yellow is a Spring color, and Spring is much on my mind. Of course, seasons haven’t existed since I was a child. We wake up now expecting any number of a possible set of weathers and temperatures, but never what is “supposed” to happen. Still, no one has told the plants, and they still generally agree on a time of year to emerge, to revive.

In my neighborhood come the white crocuses that my mother always called “snow-drops”, drooping over with the effort of pushing through the still semi-frozen ground. Then the decorative cherry trees turn their lurid pink. This week, we are up to the daffodils, with their faintly ridiculous bell looming nose-like out of a carefully fanned out pinwheel of petals.

These flowers are asserting themselves in emptying streets. I have cut my walks to once every three days, in order to avoid my fellow citizens who seem totally unconcerned with the 6 feet of distance we are supposed to be taking from each other. The flowers are matched on these walks by a plethora of brightly colored chalked messages from children. “We’re all in this together.” reads one. “Stay 6 Feet Away But SMILE” says another.

Tomorrow, my city begins a policy of Shelter in Place. We will be confined to our homes most hours of the day and we do not know yet how the policy will be enforced, whether police will exert their increasingly militarized authority to make sure that “social distancing” is defended. It is a strong possibility that the cheerful public health reminders from children will be replaced with a bullhorn and a tear gas canister if they are not observed.

But we ARE all in this together, and it becomes clearer every day, the fragile networks that keep us all alive. I have to believe that despite the fear, despite the dying and the dystopia, we are reaching each other, that we are growing stronger, that we are finding how badly we need one another. We will emerge from our houses and revive our struggle against the drabness and dreariness of fascism. Our roots grow deeper, and we grow brighter, more beautiful. We shine.

Father Demo Square At Night

I have Brooklyn blood, but due to the great peregrinations of my family through the wider metropolitan area, I was raised in Westchester, so I always approached New York City from the north. I would eventually cement this orientation by moving into Washington Heights along with my sisters, we all became uptowners. But there was a time when I knew Downtown Manhattan well, and visited Greenwich Village often.

These were my days of listless, aimless madness, when I was living with my folks in between attempts at doing farmwork, which I only did because I thought it was the only way to soothe the rough scraping at myself my mind otherwise insisted on. Heading from a therapy appointment, or a visit at a museum, or a date, I’d take the A down to West 4th, pop my head out of ground at 6th Avenue, and wander Washington Square before heading over to where two good friends were living unhappily together in an oven-like little apartment on Bleecker Street, just where it meets Sixth Avenue and both are intersected by Carmine street. There’s a little triangle of pavement there, that the city has condescended to green, and a fountain. The triangle is surrounded by shops. It’s called Father Demo Square.

The story of my friends’ unhappiness together is each of theirs to tell, not mine, and anyway, it ends in Texas, placing it entirely out of the scope of this investigation, but I’ll just say we were all young and miserable and poisoning ourselves and each other one way or another. We’d meet and laugh at our own sour misery and poor coping skills, over a board game or a pizza. The apartment was right in between two of the finest pizzas in the city, Joe’s on Carmine’s and John’s on Bleecker, and those days, possibly more than any other point in a lifetime of Pizza eating, has led to the great unhappy snobbishness with which I regard the cheesy flatbreads of this country.

The apartment was hot to the touch in all seasons. In the summer, the air conditioner couldn’t defeat the constantly open sultry window, as my friends ducked out to the fire escape for their cigarettes; In the winter, the landlord left the thermostat on a feverish 80. I’d burst in like a bear around 6 or 7, we’d order dinner as I shed layers, I’d ignore the numb sadness in my friends and myself while they played video games, and then I’d notice that it was too late to catch a train back to Westchester and we’d cheerfully agree I had to spend the night. Waking up at 4 or 5 AM, I’d silently dress in my winter apparel, and then make my way out, to an abandoned Father Demo Square, to the A, back uptown, back to my parents’ house, where I no longer felt at home.

Time moved on, as it does, and space stayed still, as it does. My friends and I left for treatment facilities and other opportunities, I found farm work and lost it, fell in love, came back to the city and moved Uptown. My girlfriend, a smarter, stabler student than I, got herself enrolled at the New School while I began a fitful career at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. We’d meet for dinner downtown, and her favorite place was Trattoria Spaghetto, on Father Demo Square.

Spaghetto was a little time capsule, a chip of cheap Little Italy sentiment that somehow got knocked a few blocks north and west. It had red checkered tablecloths, of all the disneyfied, Bella-Notte cliches, and truly delicious pasta. We’d sit there and watch the summer evening end and the night begin, cool air coming off the traffic on Sixth Avenue. Trattoria Spaghetto’s gone now, just like the Italians who used to overflow Little Italy and attend Our Lady of Pompeii just across the street, where Father Demo tended to their pastoral needs. Just like Father Demo himself. Just like the romance between me and the girlfriend I used to take there.

When she left, I had far fewer reasons to go all the way downtown. The A shuttled me between the Upper West Side and Washington Heights, and I viewed my hereditary Brooklyn as distant as the surface of the moon. But one night, the night after the first Women’s March in January of 2017, I found I couldn’t sleep. I had a powerful craving for spaghetti and meatballs, and naturally my thoughts found their way back downtown. My legs were sore and chafed from the long day’s march, but I said, to hell with it, this is New York, I can definitely get spaghetti and meatballs somewhere in this town at 2 AM. So I got on the A.

It wasn’t a cold January night. It was quite warm on my busy little island at the center of this grievously wounded world. I wandered from supposedly open place to supposedly open place, eventually settling for a mediocre spaghetti in bolognese at the 24/7 diner on West 4th. After eating it, I went and sat in the square. I thought about the vile presidency in front of us, and the encouragement of the street rising up, as I thought it had earlier that day. I thought about long nights, and short days. I thought about heating planets. I thought about all those nights, in Father Demo Square. Then I hopped on the A, and went home, where I wouldn’t be much longer.

Our Plague Year: In the beginning. . .

A friend last night suggested that we have no way of knowing how big this will grow in our minds, how monstrous will the disease’s impact be on the imagination. Will we look back ruefully at a disaster that never came? “Remember social distancing, you guys? Remember coronavirus? What was the deal there?” the comedians might quip.

Or we might never forget, we might curse the illness daily, or bless it, or simply always recall it. Another friend suggests that there will be a baby boom in 40 weeks, as we withdraw into our homes. I joke that Corona is a nice name for a girl. Covid for boys. It might be gallows humor. Or I might just be an insensitive prick. It depends not on some character inherent in me or the joke, but on the virus, and what it does.

I grew up in Westchester county, the notoriously condemned hotspot of COVID-19. My parents still live in my hometown of New Rochelle, a mere ten minutes outside of the dystopian “Containment Zone,” where the national guard has been called in to guard a perimeter and nominally aid the affected. I get calls most days from distant friends and acquaintances who have just remembered that. They ask me if my family is all right. I tell them my parents are in remarkably high spirits, that they joke and laugh. My mother lightly refers to the zone as the Zona Corona. My mother, who obsesses over every cough, every sneeze of her loved ones, is cool as a cucumber in light of a global pandemic.

Likewise, though my friends are fretting away, stockpiling groceries and cancelling events, I find myself oddly unaffected by the thought of the disease coming for me. Oh, I take precautions, I limit my contact with crowds, I protect people around me, I wash my hands for the requisite time while singing verses of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But I’m not afraid. Everyone around me is afraid, and I’m not, and I don’t know why.

My wife thinks it has something to do with my long life as a fearful and anxious person, the time I spent in therapists’ offices and in-patient treatment facilities talking about my irrational fears of failure and disappointment. She means that I’ve spent a long time learning how to handle and manage my and others’ anxieties, but I like to imagine she means that there is some sort of economy of fright. In this view, I am as much a spendthrift of fear as I am of money, throwing it away on friends, on small matters, never saving up for an emergency that might truly warrant its expenditure.

If there is a psychological explanation, I don’t think it lies in my history of anxiety, but in my history of opposition to all that is good for me. I have always screamed “No” in the face of my best interests. As I said, I don’t know why I’m not afraid, but I do know I’m angry. I’m angry at all my friends’ careful preparations and timidities. I’m angry at each verse of Dylan’s song as it comes and goes above my soapy hands. I am angry at the governments and their various responses to people in sickness and need. I’m angry at the Virus. I’m angry at the Fear.

I have been feared. When I had my first struggles with depression and psychosis, I was living overseas, and my sister was the closest family member. She’d hear my litany of miserable ramblings and her eyes would go wide and she’d say, “You sound crazy.” I’d sob. Later, as I went through treatments and communities of the mentally ill, as I came to think of the Mad as my people and my comrades, I came to see the demonization of illness as a great evil. We can not help the moments when we are weak and frightened. We can not help the moments when we are miserable and screaming. We can not help the moments when our body breaks away from us, and pursues some other program, of coughing and vomiting and bleeding. And yet we are vilified in those moments, as irresponsible, as foolish, as a danger to others.

And while we must, yes, wash our hands and not touch our faces and socially distance and buy groceries in bulk, I think we must also say no. We have forgotten that an appropriate response to crisis is to pray, and we have forgotten that prayer can be an anguished refusal, an enormous screaming “No!”

No, I refuse to fear my own hands and their desire for my face.
No, I refuse to view my neighbor as a vector of infection.
No, I refuse to let the realm of the microbe rob me of my humanity.
No, I refuse to abandon the weak and the dying to their fate.
No, I refuse to care for my body before I care for yours.

One day this will all be over. One day all will be well. One day all who have survived will gather together, and lovingly raise our hands to each other’s faces and wipe away the tears.

Messiah and Me


My father had a friend named Bert Bell, a fellow doctor who he met while working at a hospital in the Bronx. Significantly older than my dad and a veteran of many a struggle with the city hospital bureaucracy, Bert took him under his wing and tried to coach him through the treacherous world of New York City health and hospital politics. They remained friends even as my father, always more physician than political scrapper, gave up and took his current position at a private hospital. Bert and my father would have lunch most months, and then seamlessly made the transition from friends to patient-doctor as Bert fought, survived, and then succumbed to progressive bouts of lung cancer.

I loved Bert Bell like a grandfather. Everything about him childishly delighted me, though I met him as a teenager and knew him well into my 20s. Underneath his thick black eyebrows, he had mischievously sparkling eyes, separated by a classic Ashkenazi schnozz, which rosacea enhanced to epic proportions and bumpiness. His mouth would twist wryly in self-amusement as he gravelled out in a thick Bronx accent, “Mo, darling, did you know I built the Brooklyn bridge? All my idea. Why not a bridge, I said?” It is from Bert that I picked up my possibly regrettable habit of calling people “darling” and “gorgeous”.

Most important of all, he made my father, who could at times, especially in the office, be overly somber, smile and laugh at work. It always gives me a chuckle to think of the time when my father’s baffled secretary buzzed his intercom to announce that Messiah was outside and wanted to see him. Evidently Bert had promoted himself from Brooklyn Bridge innovator.

The thing was though, while Bert was too young to build the Brooklyn Bridge, he was indeed an authentic piece of New York City history. Specifically, he played a large advocate role in getting legislation passed to put bars on windows above ground floor. As a young doctor he’d seen too many kids in the ER who had just fallen out of their apartments. Then years later, he chaired the Bell commission which made the recommendations, later built into a much copied New York State law, that young doctors on their residency shouldn’t have to be on call for 24 hours straight, exhausting them and lowering standards of care. While not Messiah, Bert was undoubtedly a heavy hitter in New York health policy.

That’s the funny thing about life. Sometimes you meet someone important.

Messiah and Me

Of all the things I worried about when I moved from New York to Philadelphia, I never concerned myself much about friends. I’m not a particularly shy person, and find it relatively easy to face the possible rejection that can come from putting yourself out on a social limb. As such, friends come to me quite easily. A party here, go to synagogue, go to a poetry reading, add someone on Facebook, chat online a few times and boom, you’ve got yourself a circle of acquaintances.

Such being the case, I can’t tell you precisely how I met Immanuel, though I will say that I think he sought me out a bit more than I did him. Not that I didn’t like him or anything. Quite the contrary. I was convinced that he didn’t like me, mostly because I could never seem to get a real laugh out of him. A polite smile, a nod of acknowledgement that a joke had been told, perhaps a chuckle; not what I’d call a real connection over sense of humor.

But there’s more to life than exchanging witticisms, and as we spent time together, I came to really appreciate Immanuel’s gentleness, his careful wording of questions, his openness to share his life and struggles with mental health problems and hear about mine, while always respecting boundaries. A fellow Jew, we began studying together, and while I have the greater experience with the texts, Immanuel’s curiosity and willingness to learn with me were a valuable and fun part of our chevrusa.

Recently, my friend called me with a purpose. He asked me to schedule some time in particular to talk to him, and only mildly curious I put it aside. I assumed he wanted to study more. When he called, he asked me how I was, we exchanged pleasantries. And then Immanuel began a strange set of inquiries. He asked me if I thought that God talks to us, do I think that God wants things from us, as humans, as Jews. I said I surely do. I even shared that in my youth I had a series of moments that at the time-and still-I took for personal revelations, and that I sometimes wonder if God will speak to me again, now that I am older and I am not so fiery a believer.

Immanuel began prefacing a thought. He added a lot of caveats, he assured me he’s stable on his medications and he’s cleared the subject with his therapist. He said he hasn’t had a manic episode in months. He said these had been a series of revelatory experiences, not dissimilar to mine, that is, not auditory or visual apparitions, but rather moments of deep connection with the Divine where a sense of clarity pervaded.

In short, my new friend Immanuel told me he was the Messiah.

The conversation continued, I thanked Immanuel for trusting me, I expressed support, I asked clarifying questions, I agreed that it sounds like a genuine religious experience, I left room for myself to be convinced of whether or not he’s the messiah, he thanked me for my support and making a space for him to say these things, and then we hung up. I hung up on my friend, the Messiah.

That’s the funny thing about life. Sometimes you meet someone important.


I’m not a patient person. Maybe it’s the ADHD, maybe it’s the instant gratification ethic of the early 21st century United States, I don’t know. The idea of my ancestors’ restrained, bottomless spiritual commitment to waiting for Moshiach-I can’t fathom it, it slips my grasp. I like the idea of waiting for Messiah-love it, even-precisely because I am not constituted for it. The idea that the centuries could end here, that a new era begins now . . . Well, it appeals. For all the old reasons and some new ones.

I’m not callous or careless. To the best of my ability, I am sure that Immanuel is taking care of his mental health, that he is not in the middle of some manic episode, that he’s not about to wander the streets naked demanding worshippers, God forbid, or, God forbid, do anything violent in the name of God.

I really do believe God talks to some of us, possibly all of us. Not a voice but a feeling, not a command but a sense of certainty and calm. I have no way of calling into doubt Immanuel’s convictions of the work that lies ahead of him, or of the success that he says God has promised him.

Do I believe him? Do I think that my friend is Messiah?

I have always thought that Messiah is a contraction of time. Certain things will be true and will seem as though they’ve always been true. The dead will rise in the sense that we will be perfectly in communion with the past and the future. We will know where we’re from and where we’re going. Messiah is David’s son in the sense that David was the beginning of something.

Messiah is a hope and a whisper, Messiah is a trumpet blast, messiah is a miracle, messiah is a great deal of things, but is he the shy, self-effacing young man I’ve been studying with in Philly? I have no answers. I know only this. I believe I have work to do. I believe Immanuel, who’s real name I have withheld from you, has work to do. I believe you reading this have work to do. And if we all do the work in front of us, and it turns out Messiah is here? Then we will finish our work, and then go welcome him.