Happy 100th Birthday, Grammy

Grammy and me, 1974

My maternal grandmother would have turned 100 today. She was born on April 29, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s unknown to me whether the wake of the Russian Revolution the year before touched her young life indirectly; her parents had come to this country sometime in the decade or two before her birth, presumably to escape antisemitism and in hopes of a better life for their kids. She experienced a great deal of early loss: Her identical twin sister died when they were babies, and her mom passed away when she was a young girl. 

When I was 20 or so, I became obsessed with understanding her choice to convert to Christan Science. When she told me that she had not been allowed to enter the synagogue to say Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, my heart broke. I pictured her, sitting alone outside on the steps, while the all-male minyan prayed on the other side of the heavy doors.

There was no place in the Jewish tradition of that time for her grief, her voice. As a motherless young woman who was determined to put herself through school — she and her four sisters had moved out after their father remarried and had a new child with his second wife — I imagine she was restless to find a spiritual home that embraced and acknowledged the depth of her yearning for and connection to God.

A close friend, Gus, used to zip off in a hurry after their classes at Hunter College on Thursdays. One day, Celia asked to join her. The way she described that first introduction to the Christian Science church, you’d have thought she’d found nirvana — not to mention how many Yiddish accents dotted the space. In other words, she was not only not alone, she was very much with her people.

There is so much more to Grammy than this, of course, and so much more to this story than I will get into here. Suffice it to say, she was a force of a nature. We — my siblings and cousins — were all “jewels in the crown of [her] rejoicing.” She carried scripture everywhere and believed that God is Love and Love is God. In this way, we are not so different, Grammy and I.

She died when she was 92, I was 28, and my firstborn, Aviva was three-weeks old. She didn’t get to meet Pearl. She didn’t live to see me come out, and I sometimes wonder how she would have responded to that. Part of me thinks she would have fought me tooth and nail on it, and another part of me likes to believe she would have said she’d known all along. (I think this latter part is pure fantasy, but it’s interesting to consider.) Either she and Mani would’ve loved each other or butted heads, both of them so headstrong, with a deep religious fervor informing their worldviews.

In any case, I miss her. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to know her beyond my childhood, to have had some years with her of real, wrangling conversations, before dementia began to erode her capacity to recall what she already knew. She knew us all to the end, even if we repeated the same conversations over and over. She called out for her mama and her papa the night she died, and reached her arm across my daughter’s infant body as if spanning the generations in the transference of life. I will never forget that.

Happy birthday, Grammy. If you were here, we would eat mint chip ice cream and sing to you, then clap as you blew out the candles. In fact, I think I’ll eat a scoop in your honor.

Strangled Roots and More Than One Kind of Silence

Photo: Kyle Ellefson

So often I begin with morning light. Today, I began with Facebook video calling me — after I had snoozed the alarm. A 14-hour time difference makes scheduling calls with a writer in Australia an interesting challenge; my client was in her bed, sleepy after an evening meditation, just as I was leaping out of mine to throw on a robe and pour some coffee.

One of the things that struck me most in our conversation was this: Too many of us wait. We wait until we feel more confident, more qualified, more ready. We wait because we’re afraid that not everyone will like what we have to say or write (they won’t). We wait because there are other people saying and writing these things better than we ever will. We wait, and in the waiting, our insights, our observations, our wisdom, our lived experience, our questions, and our ideas all stay in our heads.

I picture roots in a too-small pot, growing around themselves. While some plants prefer to be pot-bound (my mom told me this recently, when she stopped by and saw the succulents she’d transplanted years ago, thriving in their original pots on my windowsill), others will eventually suffer from confinement, strangling themselves rather than having room to grow. I imagine the same may be true for what is inside of us. At what point do thoughts need to be transcribed, translated, shared, and explored outside the container of inner exploration?

Never, perhaps. There’s no rule here, no should.

But this morning, I’m considering the very real possibility that the gnarled internalization of self-doubt is a form of collective gaslighting, particularly among groups who’ve experienced outer oppression. If you’re told enough times that what you have to say isn’t true, what you’ve experienced isn’t real, and that when it comes to what you see happening all around you, you’re overreacting, little by little, you’re bound to start questioning your own voice. What could you possibly have to contribute?

* * * * *

As the masks come off, as the veneers chip away, as the statues come down, and as the ugliness around us is more and more exposed, it’s inevitable and necessary to face the ways in which we’ve unknowingly swallowed the poison and internalized beliefs that hurt us and each other.

As a white woman, this means looking at my own racism — the thoughts, beliefs, and actions that may be so unconscious and so subtle that I would have denied them altogether in the past.

It means looking at the fears I’ve had of speaking up, the way my own nervous system goes into high alert in the fact of perceived conflict. It means acknowledging that I have experience I can trust, and also there is much I don’t know. Both are true.

It means acknowledging and writing from the truths of my own intersectionality. I identify as queer, and I see and feel on a daily basis the ways this sets me apart from heteronormative expectations and status quo. I am self-employed. I have no boss. I answer to myself. It was during a brief stint in the private sector that I was more aware of my gender that in any other job; women in positions of leadership were undermined in ways both nuanced and overt but difficult to call out. (It’s also the one time I’ve been laid off).

I’m acutely aware of the ways in which my people have internalized trauma and also have assimilated and benefited from being white immigrants, thus perpetuating a racial divide even while seeking to heal it.

I grew up with economic and educational privilege, and there are ripple effects to not embodying previous generations’ norms. That said, my lineage is both a gift and a burden, one I’m continuously examining and delving into more deeply. What wisdom do my ancestors have for me, and where must I peel away? When is a diversion actually a form of continuity?

Jewish tradition, in particular and in my estimation, embraces the relevance of context — culturally, politically, sociologically. We look to tradition as the basis for change, rather than as a too-small pot in which our roots slowly suffocate.

* * * * *

Privilege is being able to opt out: It doesn’t affect me. It’s not my problem. That’s awful for them — whoever “they” may be. Sometimes not saying anything is easier, sometimes safer.

There are plenty of situations where silence is self-preservation, and I feel compelled to say as much. But that’s exactly why people who benefit from systems of oppression need not only to listen to those who’ve been silenced, but also to speak up.

I’ve read a few articles lately about “call-out culture.” Last night, I found myself reacting to a post by a coach — not someone I know personally. The implication was along the lines of “we create our own reality” and that pain can be the basis for healing. My immediate reaction was, THIS IS EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH WHITE FEMINIST SELF-HELP CULTURE.

I read it to Mani. I’ll admit that it felt good for a moment, the self-righteousness. But rather than leaving it at that, I decided to learn a little more. Something happened as I read more of her copy: I saw myself. I saw the ways in which I, too, am working with women to dismantle the ways we’ve internalized the patriarchy.

And I had no choice but to ask myself: Where are my blind spots?

Calling each other out — or in, if you prefer — is critical. And we also have to keep asking ourselves hard questions. The former is just a performance without the latter.

* * * * *

There are 10,000 threads here. This stops me from starting at all. It’s too big, I tell myself. I’m all over the place. How is this helpful? I’m just another white woman taking up too much room.

But therein lies a place where the roots need to grow. On the one hand, the myth of too-much has been used to silence women. On the other hand, as a white woman, I DO need to be quiet — not because my voice doesn’t matter, but because the voices of women of color matter, too, and have been strangled, smothered, suffocated, and suppressed in ways that mine hasn’t.

This is intersectionality. This is complexity. This is not a binary of privilege and oppression nor is it a hierarchy of suffering. It’s a willingness to outgrow small spaces, to risk writing and inviting conversation even if not everything I’m saying is fully formed and perfectly expressed. It’s saying: This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of the reality we are ALL creating — and perhaps more importantly, undoing.

* * * * *

Am I choking on my roots or are they propelling me to grow and thrive? Who is watering the plants?

* * * * *

I have no neat and conclusive way of ending this post, except to say that I’m hearing more than one kind of silence. The fearful kind, that tells me to be careful — there could be repercussions. The complicit kind, that doesn’t want to rock the boat, get it wrong, or look at the ways in which I’m responsible for this mess we’re in. And the listening kind, where I acknowledge how much I have to learn and unlearn.

Which one do you relate to most — and if you take the time to listen, what do you hear?