The Littlest Matryoshka

My office was closed for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which concludes the 49-day period known as the Omer that begins after Passover. It is the reaping of the harvest, the receiving of the Torah, the landing after the wandering. It happened to coincide with a couple of days without the girls; after a six-night stretch together, it was time to go to Dada’s house–and all of the emotions associated with that for me–awe, sadness, wonder, gratitude, concern, resilience, disbelief.

Wednesday morning after chatting with Greg in the driveway–he had come over to pick the girls up and bring them to school–I brought my car down to the shop to get the a/c fixed. I ran the two miles back home, figuring I might as well get in some exercise since the day was predicted to be a scorcher. Already sweaty, I kicked off my sneakers and borrowed the neighbor Frank’s gas can to fill up the stinky lawn mower, watching the patterns emerge as I walked circles around the backyard, picking up sticks and toys as I went. Then the mower crapped out for some reason I didn’t feel like investigating, so the front lawn remained a bit wilder as I went inside to vacuum the floors and rugs, which badly needed some attention.

I threw in a load of laundry and gathered all of my receipts to get a handle on my checkbook, visited with a friend, and then around 1:30 climbed into bed. A day off! I turned off my cell phone, turned the ceiling fan on high, got under the sheet, and closed my eyes. Woke up around 3:30 and turned over onto my other side. At 5:00pm I woke up, amazed at having taken a four and a half hour nap. It was like a nap to make up for weeks, months of no naps. When Aviva was in preschool, up until she was about 5 1/2, she stayed home with me on Fridays, and after a morning of getting our challah and a snack at Stone Soup, making our weekly pilgrimage to the library, and riding the free shuttle up and down College Street, we inevitably napped together in the afternoons. I loved those “stay-home” days.

The Toyota shuttle picked me up and I went to get my car. Made some ravioli for dinner and climbed back into bed at 8:00pm. I woke yesterday at 5:00am, again amazed at how much sleep my body needed, and grateful for it. Folded the laundry, emptied the dishwasher, and packed a bag for yet another road trip before heading downtown to get quarters, fill up the car with gas, stop at the dump with a month’s worth of garbage bags, and vacuum the car at Girlington Garage, where I stopped inside to pee and wash my hands, so impressed by this women-owned garage where there’s a changing table in the bathroom, and a pretty bowl discreetly holding individually wrapped maxi-pads, and foaming gardenia-scented hand soap from Lunaroma, a local essential oils store.

From there, I hit the highway to meet a colleague at Topnotch, a resort in Stowe that runs 2-for-1 midweek specials for Vermonters. I had hesitated about going, but she gently egged me on until I finally agreed to join her. It was money well spent–after changing into my bathing suit, I met her out by the pool, where we sat and talked, surrounded by flowers and a view of the mountains, the moody sky not yet overtaken by the crazy thunderstorms that would accompany me later on my drive south. We swam lazy laps, chatting at the end of each one. We sat in the hot tub and then lounged in big comfy white robes while waiting to be called for our massages. I told her how it’s easy in settings like this to think, “I could live like this,” to imagine a whole other life where this kind of “luxury” is commonplace. But then to wake up and realize, we ARE living like this, right this minute, for these few hours–and it’s enough. It’s lovely. It’s not always about wanting, wishing for, getting MORE than what we have. We are taught to either covet experiences like these or treat them as “guilty pleasures.” It was great to just ENJOY being there with her, enjoy the fact that we were taking a few hours from our go-go-go working-mother mode to unwind, to take care of our tired bodies.

The massage therapist was an older woman named Rosemary. Within a few minutes of working deeply on my neck, she asked, “And you waited this long… why?” We talked intermittently throughout the massage. She asked about my girls, intuitively suggesting that Pearl try a martial art (something Greg and I have also realized might be a great way for her to channel her warrior energy) and that I consider doing some reiki together with them both. Towards the end of the session, she did some reiki with me, her hands on the sides of my face, the top of my head, my heart, belly, soles of the feet. I felt the energy of her hands channeling light, though it wasn’t until she left the room that I cried, just a tiny bit, that sweet quiet release of arrival.

After I showered and got my stuff together, I looked in the mirror. My eyes looked bright, a surprising blue-green. My skin looked healthy. I felt refreshed. And then I drove for three hours through crazy lightning and downpours and fallen trees and dead deer on the side of the highway, the radio on the whole time in case of tornado warnings, stopping in Putney to get some caffeine and to call my sister, who was debating whether to hit the basement. Everyone down here’s a little on edge after last week’s tornadoes.

Shortly after getting to Amherst, I had a chance encounter with Mrs. Brooks, my beloved teacher from Pelham Elementary School. She was my first teacher the year we moved here from Buffalo, a year of huge family changes and loneliness for me, a nine-year old trying to get her bearings in a rural school after years at Waterfront, one of Buffalo’s first magnet schools, where Ani DiFranco and I played recorder together with Mr. Sapienza, who doubled as the swim coach and, I heard, later died of AIDS. A school where I had made a case for being in the Spanish-speaking classes, not realizing that these were actually ESL classes for the many Puerto Rican and Dominican kids who spoke Spanish at home. A school where not everyone was white.

And so, Mrs. Brooks embraced me in a firm-but-loving kind of way, encouraging my self-expression as I discovered my own look those two years, wearing a sleeve of Madonna bangles and long dangling earrings my mother thought were inappropriate for school. I had forgotten this part, but at one point I even changed my name to Jena Black (my maiden name, Schwartz, means “black” in German and Yiddish)–and last night, after a series of huge hugs in the parking lot of The Pub in Amherst, she looked at me and said, “Jena Black!” in a “Well I’ll be damned!” kind of way. It was truly wonderful to see her, almost thirty years later. I told her Aviva will be in third grade, and she said, “Oh, that is my favorite grade!” I told her if only she were still teaching! We promised to get together next time I’m in town, to “talk like women.”

After dinner with my sisters, I came back to my parents’ house with a slight headache. I was sleep by 9:00pm. I woke around 7:00, recalling a mish-mash of the kind of strange dreams you have when you have the bed to yourself.

I dreamt about giving birth to a very small baby wrapped in a pair of black socks. It was another girl. She was reddish in color and had a faint crown of blond hair, and I did not know what to call her.

It occurs to me this morning that she may have been the smallest of my matryoshka dolls, the ones I wrote about containing for years, this sense that I went in and in, a series of nestled selves, generations of women and girls inside of my body. For so many years, I felt this sense of held-in-ness, containment, “hidden worlds within worlds” as Coleridge wrote. And a year ago, during that Michael Franti concert when I felt myself come out of myself–I literally felt the opening of a channel that began at my vagina and shot up through the top of my head, it overcame me, felt like birth and death and understanding beyond thought and the rain poured down on me and I simply cried and cried and cried, knowing what this was, my whole life suddenly clear, the implications in that moment unthinkably difficult–the held-in-ness was released. The genie had left the bottle, and as I would find in the months that followed, there was no stuffing her back in. She simply refused; each and every time I tried, tried to deny her this expansion, she growled back, “NO.”

So maybe that tiniest baby was a gift in my dream last night, the littlest self telling me, yes, take care of yourself, yes, take care of your body, yes, love your girls and trust the infinite friendship you have with their father, yes, mow the lawn, yes, pay the bills, yes, be with friends, yes, sit down with your teacher and talk as women, you are free and we are safe. Maybe she came to say don’t worry about naming me; I am already you.

And so this morning I say a quiet thank you to the God of my Fathers and the God of my Mothers, the God of my Children and to My God–each the same and yet with so many faces, so many expressions–nameless and known. Modeh Ani: As I awake, at the light of daybreak, I give thanks for all you’ve returned to me. You’ve restored my soul so faithfully. 

Shmirat Hanesh–these words have echoed in my head all week. Self-care. Care of the Soul. Care of the Littlest Matryoshka, who has finally shown herself to me.

10 thoughts on “The Littlest Matryoshka

  1. Renae C says:

    I love this Jena. So beautiful. So powerful. Yes, nurture that littlest you born in your dream. Thank you for reminding me of what I so need to give myself.


  2. Maya says:

    Jena –

    This is so beautiful. Deep, heartfelt, and resonant. Better than synagogue for me. I have a special fondness for those dolls, too, and you’ve reminded me why in a way I would not have known to articulate. Care of the soul. For the littlest self. What a great gift to receive today. Thank you.


  3. Lisa says:

    Just like you, this is a beautiful, eloquent, powerful and amazing post!

    Thank you for sharing it. :)

    (LOVE the name change part, as I, too, had a Madonna phase with lots of bangles!)


  4. brandyglows says:

    I just found your blog via Lindsey Mead’s post where you wrote about trust. I’m so full of gratitude that I did. Your writing is so pure and heartfelt. You’ve truly added joy and comfort to my day. Can’t wait to read more.


  5. Pamela says:

    Damn. Your writing blows me away each time. It’s so easy to close off to yourself in order to accomplish all of the day’s work, but every time I read your blog, I come back to myself. Thank you! And the birth to that black-socked baby was breathtaking.



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