Grief Needs a Minute

Print: Erica Schultz Yakovetz

Today we saw lives taken and destroyed. Today we saw once again that anyone can walk into holy space and destroy life.

I keep thinking of the baby, whose bris (ritual circumcision) was this morning. How will this day shape his becoming?

I keep thinking of sitting in Shabbat morning services, the comfort of song and silent prayer, or looking around and meeting the eyes of those I know by name and those only whose faces I recognize, the way the light enters through the large stained glass windows of our sanctuary.

I keep thinking of the elderly people and the children and the out-of-town guests, all there to celebrate and welcome a new member of the Jewish people into his community.

I keep thinking of Charlottesville and Charleston, Ferguson and Parkland and Pulse, every black church, every public school, every grocery store, every synagogue, every planned parenthood building, every mosque, every locker room and house of learning, health care, and everyday life where it has not been safe to be a person of color, where it has not been safe to be a Jew, where it has not been safe to be a student, where it has not been safe to be a woman, where it has not been safe to be transgender, where it has not been safe to be gay, where is has not been safe, where it is not safe.

“Kill all the Jews,” the shooter yelled as he entered the building and opened fire. I am devastated for the families in that synagogue this morning, whose space will be forever a site of horror.

Just a few synonyms for Jew:

Liberal.
Media.
Globalist.

This is code

The dog whistling will not decrease. The truth-twisting and gaslighting are so staggering, it’s difficult to know where to even begin. And my words here are raw and unformed, because honestly, grief needs a minute to sink in.

They will stop at nothing, and that’s not alarmist. That’s reality.

I climbed into bed just after noon. Mani had gone out for a bit and Aviva was spending some time with my mom and Pearl’s at his dad’s. It had been a nice, quiet, rainy morning before this news; I finished reading Roxane Gay’s “Hunger,” which had been my only goal for the day. That was before Mani told me.

I took a nap. I drifted in a state of half-sleep, thinking: They want us to be scared. They want us to hide who we are. They want us to feel unsafe in our bodies, in our communities, in prayer and in protest, in our comings and goings.

I had the thought, we cannot succumb to our fear.

This afternoon, I don’t know what fighting looks like. All I know is that the midterm elections are in 10 days, and we are in a fight for our very souls. All I know is that I am with you and I am for you.

עושה שלום במרומיו
הוא יעשה שלום עלינו
ועל כל ישראל
ואמרו, ואמרו אמן

Oseh shalom bimromav
hu yaaseh shalom aleinu
v’al kol Yisrael
v’al kol yoshvei teiveil,
v’imru Amen

May the One who makes peace in the high heavens
make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth. Amen.

10/30 Poems in November: For Leonard Cohen

cohen

“There’s no one left to blame. I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game.”

— Leonard Cohen, September 21, 1934 — November 10, 2016, RIP

This is nightmarish.
My wife is crying next to me in bed,
listening to Leonard Cohen’s
Elegy for Janis Joplin–
racing the midnight train, all naked.

All day, reports from every corner
of this country — swastikas,
language we used to relegate
to neo-Nazi extremists
now showing up in dorm rooms,
in school bathrooms,
on mountaintops and on city buses,
middle-schoolers chanting,
“Build that wall” and “go back to Africa”
and “your time here is up.”

Lever-pullers who “didn’t mean for this
to happen,” see what you’ve unleashed?
The ones who voted for this didn’t care
about newspaper endorsements
or epic warnings. No, instead
they cheered at his rallies
or said we’re not bigots, we just want
a better America.
I was so naive, thinking we’d dance
each other to the end of love.
I really did!

As I draw the next breath forcing myself
to fill up all of the space
this body allows,
I stare blankly, unable to say anything
pretty or redemptive. We will play
cover after cover
of Hallejujah and Chelsea Hotel,
we will say we didn’t ask for it
to be darker, no no we didn’t want it
darker but he knew, he was
ready, my lord. He was ready
and I can only think
that today, day two
pushed him over the edge he’d been
walking towards.

I hope a million of his songs
are floating upwards to the sky
tonight. Some kind of send-off.
A grateful goodbye.

10/30

**

#30poemsinnovember is a literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans. Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. For more information, please visit cnam.org This year, we aim to raise $30,000.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

Visit my personal donation page here.

108: The House of Love (or, Where I Was the Moon)

Moon_and_Stars_series

In Jewish numerology (Gematria), the number 18 signifies “chai,” or “life.” And about the number 108 — my parents’ house number — Shiva Rea writes: “108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Traditionally, malas, or garlands of prayer beads, come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun).”

I wrote a poem once, in 1998, about my parents’ house. It’s called “Dreaming Pasternak” and to this day, it might be the best poem I’ve ever written. The house plays an important role in the poem, which came directly from a dream. I mean that literally: One morning, I woke up, put on my mom’s old soft pink bathrobe, grabbed the latte I’d stored in the fridge from my Starbucks shift the night before, a notebook and pen, and my pack of Marlboro reds, and climbed out onto the flat part of the roof where I liked to sit and smoke and write. And I didn’t so much write the poem as I wrote down the poem; it came all at once, as if it had been prewritten in the dream and I was just getting it onto paper.

In the poem, the house was the house of love. The house of love on the hill. The house that love built. The house was built in the 1880s I think, by a man named Edward Thompson. He was also known as Thompson the Tinkerer. He apparently built the house for his beloved wife, Frances. That’s all I know, but I always thought it a romantic story.

I had a relationship with that house. With myself in it. It was a house where we celebrated Christmas until we didn’t. It’s the house where I didn’t quite know I was Jewish until I did — and then I dreamed, too, of Jewish babies I couldn’t save, of the Holocaust in ways that made it clear I’d be there, running, running, and unable to save my own sister.

It’s a house where my mother has grieved the loss of not only her sister Nancy, who died 18 years ago today on SwissAir flight #111, but also of her sister Bobbi, who died in 2015 after a decade of cancer.

It’s the house where I think of myself as having swallowed silence and given it to the moon. Where I was the moon. Where I could not quite grow up. Where I would be a scholar but not a lover.

I don’t know who will die next, or why death is the thread I’m pulling on. But it’s in the air, maybe because of September. Maybe because of growing up. Maybe because of remembering grief, the grief of Nancy’s death. I’d lost two grandparents before, but it was her death that brought grief into my body for the first time. I was lost.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. 

I was blind, to think that I would stay in that house forever. That I could come back here and be anyone other than this me, this woman, not a mile from that house, writing. Doing exactly what I always knew I wanted and needed and was waiting to do: Be fully myself.  Fully alive. In my own house of love.

Dancing Boys + Red Poppies

poppy

“This wasn’t just an attack on Americans writ large — it was an attack on the freedoms that LGBTQ people have rallied for for decades.” – President Obama

I took a walk this afternoon after a short nap with Mani. She was still asleep, and I slipped out as quietly as I could so as not to wake her.

The sky was that deep-dark grey that so often comes before a storm this time of year, and the sun flicked in and out from behind its cover.

A couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, Aviva asked me when I told her dad that I’d realized I was gay.

“The night of Sunday, June 6, 2010,” I answered, not looking up from the dishes I was washing.

She looked genuinely surprised at the specificity of my response. A bit shocked, in fact.

But it’s like that, coming out. My life really did flash before my eyes at supersonic speed. A slideshow of ten thousand moments instantaneously interpreted and understood. I was driving a blue RAV4. I was crying. I was punching the steering wheel and listening to those two songs over and over. It was June 2, in the afternoon.

That was a Wednesday. Four days later, I was telling my husband of nearly eleven years that I was gay. And yes, I was sure.

I’d never even kissed a woman, but I knew.

Had I grown in a time like the one my kids are growing up in — well, who knows. The bottom line is that they wouldn’t be here, and every single step on this path has been real and necessary and is mine. This is my life. I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.

I remember one of the things my mom said to me in the wake of my “news.” I can see now, that it was a statement stemming from fear, which for better or worse, is so often the way all parents for all time express love.

She said something about it — being gay — being “a harder life.” Maybe it’s every loving parent’s wish for his or her kids, that life should be easy.

I think I know what she meant. But it wasn’t true. Life already wasn’t easy, and trying to jam a me-sized genie back into a slender-necked bottle sure wasn’t going to make it so.

No, what’s hard is trying to conform to a model for life that doesn’t fit. What’s hard is forcing yourself to “make things work” at the expense of everything your body is screaming at you — and it will scream after many years of tip-toeing around, of negotiating with life in order to keep things pretty and peaceful.

Peace and lies don’t co-exist very well, or at all.

And why, why am I writing this tonight?

On my walk earlier, that gusty wind tossing my unwashed hair around my unwashed face, the taste of love on my lips and my mind swirling just as much as the unseasonably cool air, I grieved the lives lost at Pulse in Orlando.

Everything from Trump’s incendiary tweets to lists of senators who voted against background checks to the first photos of the victims to pleas not to conflate one hate crime with an excuse to hate, all of this and more filled my Facebook feed and weighed on me and I didn’t know where to put any of it.

Where do I put this? I had asked Mani earlier, between grocery shopping, making food, and some Sunday morning housecleaning.

I read all of it obsessively. Every few minutes, I’d read some new element to her until finally it was time to put clean sheets on the bed and climb into it.

We made love this afternoon, and in my head, in my heart — I told her this later, our bodies curled around each other like they were, we were, made for this alone — I dedicated our love and our lovemaking to those boys. The gay boys. The dancing boys. The boys out for the night. The boys out, period. To their families and friends.

My heart breaks.

There are a million things to say about our country and I won’t do that here.

The dark, dark sky and the bright sun against it. How can there be so much darkness among so much beauty?

Rows of poppies down at the farm where I walked alone, each one like an announcement of itself, unapologetically red.

The Roar Sessions: Adina Giannelli

Adina_BarForgoing the Law and Finding Freedom
by Adina Giannelli

When I enrolled in law school, against my better judgment and the advice of wise and thoughtful guides, I had no idea what I was in for. Or maybe I did.

A year before, as I gathered references from my favorite teachers, all writers, memoirists, and literature professors, they blanched.

You should apply to MFA programs, Adina, my erstwhile mentor Maddy counseled over her reading glasses. I see what you’re doing. I don’t think this is the thing.

We chatted about the utility of an MFA and whether I had it in me to handle the particulars of a writing life, the cycle of rejection and defeat, the challenges, economic and otherwise.

Another mentor, an ebullient vildechaye, was more direct in her admonishment.

This is a MAJOR mistake! I’ll write you a reference, I can’t NOT, but you really shouldn’t do it.

When I reminded her that she, too, had gone to law school, she shook her head.

I went to law school because I had writer’s block, Adina! I had to go to therapy. Every. Single. Day! You should study litature, she said, her pronunciation a throwback to a midcentury Jewish American vernacular.

I never studied literature—I mean, except for your classes, I conceded. The truth, which I couldn’t access at the time, was simple. I was afraid.

You are meant to be in a PhD program in litature, Adina—my G-d! she said, melodramatically clutching at the chai around her neck, holding onto that small goatlike Hebrew letter for life.

*

A person with more self-awareness and a stronger backbone and less fear than I had at 19 or 23 or 25 would have not gone to law school at all. A slightly less witless person might have done with my friend Samantha did, which was enroll, show up, and quit on day one. But law school was respectable, and it was something to do, and I thought I could fight my better judgment and shrug off whatever shred of self-knowledge I harbored. I always did what I’d always been told, in educational contexts, until I couldn’t, and this was very much a square peg/round hole situation, but I labored through.

In my last year of law school, though, against all reason, I fell inexplicably pregnant, and organized myself accordingly. I was scheduled to finish my studies in May; the baby was due in June; I’d take the bar in July.

Maybe you should think about rescheduling the bar exam, my midwife urged.

The bar will be there next year, my adored law school professor Lauren promised.

After some measure of reflection I decided that they were right.

The bar exam would be there the following year—of course.

The baby, however, would not.

*

Talya was born inexplicably small, precipitously tiny, her size a mystery and a riddle and an augury. Before I knew that, before I knew that this girl would be born at four pounds and chronically unsettled, I knew I could not leave a newborn to sit for a two-day examination I never really cared about. So with the clarity and wisdom and berth of a woman nearly nine months pregnant—and pathologically ambivalent about the practice of law, besides—I decided to postpone the test. We would all carry on as scheduled, I with the baby, and the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners might miss my $815, but the bar would go on.

True to expectation, the bar exam rolled along as scheduled. But the day my law school colleagues sat for the bar exam was the day my firstborn child died.

I was never the sort of person who relied on signs but if ever there was a message from the universe, this was a sure one: I should not be a lawyer.

And so for years I carried on accordingly. I coped, or didn’t. I tried, and didn’t. In some respects, I thrived, and in most measures, I functioned, but I was more than a little unmoored. Through it all, the loss resounded. I felt many things and I felt almost nothing, but mostly I felt like a strange sort of mourning beach, the grief washing back and forth over me like a tide.

On the professional front, the lawyering front, I hedged. I learned, through various internships and clerkships in and after law school, that I was highly effective at executing the responsibilities associated with legal work, but not temperamentally suited to the practice of law. I thrive under pressure, and love it when the stakes are high.

A close friend and amateur astrologer once told me that I was well suited to four and only four occupational categories: teacher, writer, therapist, and deputy. You are strongest when second in command, she promised. You give excellent advice, but always think that more information is coming, and don’t want to be the one charged with the final decision. I put little stock in astrology, but clung to this comment as a dictate. Even at the bottom of an organizational hierarchy, a lawyer is never second-in-command. The idea of being responsible for someone’s legal outcomes left me sleepless and stressed out beyond measure.

I recognized late what I hadn’t ever been brave enough to name: I was curious about the law, I loved studying the law and excelled at research and administration and teaching undergraduate students about the law, but I hadn’t ever wanted to be a lawyer. I went to law school because it was something to do, because my mind had intellectual questions that could not be answered in a seminar or a laboratory or a workshop, and I thought I wasn’t made for those places, either. I went to law school because after my mentors said don’t I earned a full scholarship and before that a long line of people who didn’t really know me or lawyering told me I should be a lawyer. After all, I was good at reading and good at reasoning and good at arguing, the imagined big three of a lawyer’s life. But it wasn’t what I wanted. It was someone else’s dream, and I was good, too, at other people’s dreams.

Still, even at the point of peak engagement in the legal world, I never intended to practice, and so completing the bar was not a test of my legal knowledge or an opportunity to prove my acumen. You worked so hard, my grandmother chided me, each time the bar exam came up. How hard I worked is an open question, but the fact is, I already earned the degree. I didn’t need to take the bar to validate the many hours of effort and time that went into law school.

Eventually, though, I realized: I did need to take the bar. But for me, the exam was a different sort of trial. The process was unceremonious; the failure, practically preordained.

Now, I wouldn’t have minded if I passed, however unlikely that outcome. It was clear to me that passage was nearly impossible, given that I’d been out of law school for six years and had barely cracked open my study materials. I’m not proud of that, either, but it’s real. I lacked inclination; I lacked time. In the months leading up to the bar exam, I was running an organization; single parenting a small child; teaching three undergraduate courses; pretending to be a full-time graduate student, and dealing with the residual trauma of the recent and horrific murder of my partner’s ex. So I was a little preoccupied. Some say that because of the symbolic and material significance of the date, the exam itself would traumatize. Probably all true. But I’m not sure I would have passed even if circumstances were different—if I’d done the requisite two months of solitary 10-12 hour days—no job, no child, no graduate school, no trauma. And I’m not sure I would have cared.

If I passed, I won, but if I failed I was equally victorious. True to my mentors’ protestations, I never fully belonged in the legal world. And the trauma of my daughter’s death compounded that feeling, heightened my sense of disjuncture and cemented the belief that I should not practice law. And so taking the bar was never about passing the bar, and it was never about validating my self-concept or measuring my sense of worth.

The bar was about being stuck someplace for five and a half years, clawing and scratching and scrounging up the wherewithal to move out and through and beyond it. And I did.

So when I looked around the room at the end of the final day, and saw people, anxious in their anticipation and fear of an adverse outcome, I was outside once more. For me, it was another experience entirely.

When I walked through that auditorium door at the close of the examination, what I felt was not fear or pride, anticipation or longing, or, even, to my great surprise, grief at the death of my long-gone daughter. The bar for me was not the start of a chapter but the closing of a book. I left that exam feeling lighter than I’d felt in a very long time. I had made it through, as surely as I’d been stuck. The victory was quiet, my roar also inaudible. There were no accolades, no job offers, no awards for leaving the law behind. And a literary path was sure to be pocked with different kinds of challenges. But I had crossed a threshold. And what I felt on the other side was an inexorable freedom.

**

Adina GiannelliAdina Giannelli is a writer and teacher whose essays have appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post. You can find her online at her www.adinagiannelli.com, and you can call her Adi.

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The Roar Sessions is a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices. Please note that the views and opinions expressed in these guest posts belong to each author own and do not necessarily reflect my own. All Roar Sessions content, including photos, belongs to the respective contributors. Read them all.