Monday, December 14, 2009

I was afraid I wouldn't recognize him. My brother's son. For years he had lived with his mother, my brother's ex-wife, and I had missed him on my trips back East. I hadn't seen him for a few years and in that time he had changed from child to young man, had grown an inch or two taller than me, had filled out and started to shave.

On the train platform i recognized him by his ears. Jug-ears, like my brother's and like mine--the bane of my young life--they stick out of his head cheerfully. And his slightly lopsided grin. He's appealing, this boy. There's an open-heartedness to him, an openness, an easy-goingness, a sweetness, that is relaxing.

He's nineteen and doesn't know what he's up to. Which way is up, what he's going to do, even where he's going to sleep from night to night. He thanks me a hundred times for making him simple dinners, for sewing up the torn pocket of his jacket, for inviting him to sleep in our guest room. He hangs out with messed-up kids who go to jail and do dumb things, and yet he's not bad himself, just confused and far too amenable.

If he makes it out of this morass he's in, if he survives his twenties and into his thirties, he could become, in time, a voice of wisdom. people like him, are drawn to him, sometimes the wrong people. He walks through the world without a filter. In time, he could become a therapist, he could help kids like himself, he could learn from his mistakes and use his powers to attract people for good. Or he could go the other way.

I used to long to be a parent. Now I wonder how people do it. I wuld be scared to death if he were my son. I'm scared being his aunt. Yet I myself did plenty of dumb things when I was his age and older; hitchhiked across country, hung out with men of questionable character, got myself into all kinds of scrapes. I hope he has the same kind of hardworking guardian angel I had. I see some of myself in him, especially around the almond-shaped deepset dark eyes and the eyebrows. And in the openness and lack of judgement, which is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing, depending.

Christopher has been a wonderful uncle, generous and unselfish. We all went together with Gerry to see The Road, based on the Pulitzer-prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. It was a powerful movie, very horrific and depressing. I spent about 20 percent of it with my hands over my eyes, because i couldn't bear to witness what i was seeing, and about 20 percent of the time crying. I don't think i laughed or even smiled once. So I wouldn't recommend it as a mood-lifter or anything, but it made me feel and it made me think which are the two things i ask of a work of art.

What it made me feel was shock and horror at the prospect of this world-as-we-know-it ending. I went online afterward and read that the novel "The Road" was hailed as the best ecological book ever written, better than Silent Spring, better than Walden, because it detailed so painfully what it would be like on earth without our biosphere. Gerry wanted to know what the specific nature of the ecological disaster was, but i didn't need to. There are enough contenders; global warming, nuclear winter, a meteor strike...what is important are the questions it raises: when is life worth living and what makes it not worth living anymore? And how do we keep the light inside ourselves alive?

The father and the boy undertake an Odyssey with the slenderest, vaguest thread of hope. Hope for what, when there are not trees, no vegetation, and almost no animals left, when the human race has been reduced to random bands of scavenging starving cannibals? What is there left to hope for? Survival? What do we owe life when everything has been stripped away? The father trudges on, not for himself--he is dying and he knows it-- but for the faint possibility of life for his son, for some hope that he might go on. Although all his effort is based on the most personal of motives--that his son might live--it is really in service of Life itself.

For that reason, although I can't say I enjoyed it, I think The Road is a great movie.

Other media I have been absorbing: Eve Ensler's wonderful political memoir, Insecure at Last, in which she examines our attachment and clinging to false security, and tells of her travels in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, New Orleans, and a women's prison in upstate New York, where she worked with women survivors of rape, genocide, prison, catastrophe. Again, not an easy read but a powerful one.

And Christopher and I rented the BBC adaptation of David Copperfield, which i enjoyed more than I thought I would. The minor characters are all drawn so beautifully, there is so much feeling and passion in that world, that the whole piece sang. Once again i got online and read up on Dickens (whom, I confess, I was never that attracted to, although reading A Christmas Carol at Carla's house years ago brought me to unexpected tears. I think it was the sense of wordiness and denseness and the sheer size of the novels that turned me off--and the way the good characters are so good and the bad ones are so awful.

But when I read about his early life, and how young he was when he wrote this stuff--he was an international celebrity by the age of thirty, he and his wife had 10 children, he created a home for fallen women that was ahead of its time in its enlightened attitudes--I softened. Maybe not enough to dive into Great Expectations--I seem to be on a non-fiction streak that shows no signs of breaking, except for The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was a wonderful novel--but mostly i want to read about real people and situations right now.

We've lit the Chanukah candles every night so far, and I'm touched by how much both boys, Christopher and Josh, my nephew--seem to like the ritual. they remind me about it, they take over the choosing of candles and the lighting, they whisper the prayer--or the pieces of it they can remember--along with me. They are smitten with the lights.

I don't feel particularly resentful about Christmas this year. In fact, what I feel mostly about Christmas is a big sense of relief; here is a holiday that I don't have to "do." I get to just sit back and watch. Pretty lights, some nice music, some shmaltzy and unbearable music, but I am free--free most of all from expectations.

December twenty-fifth doesn't have to be magical or fulfilling or anything for me. it's okay if it's ordinary. I can enjoy a walk around the lake or a movie or just a grilled cheese sandwich as much or more than people who have made a big fuss. I love the un-fussiness of my December 25th compared to the extreme fuss that the culture at large seems to need.

My stepmother makes a fuss over the holiday--all of her six kids come home and they have a holiday dinner and open presents and I'm sure it's a lovely time but the thought of that makes me feel tired. Last year we walked around the lake on Christmas and I saw several women, alone, crying on park benches, or sitting close to the water looking so sad.

When you think--when you are told repeatedly--that a certain day is supposed to be x--when you're told that your college years are supposed to be the best of your life--or that your wedding day should be like a page out of a fairy tale--or that Christmas means family gathered around a tree, singing carols--then when it isn't like that you feel shattered, bereft, and in my case, as though you must have done something wrong for your experience to have fallen short of the prescribed bliss.

Right now, Christopher and I are trying to decide which movie we're going to see on the twenty-fifth. I may ask some orphan Christians to join us, if they need a place to be and people to be with. Maybe we'll go to a Chinese restaurant--a time-honored Jewish tradition--or maybe we'll just make a nice dinner at home. I'll probably check in on my Dad who usually sounds a little hassled and confused on that day--what's he doing in a house with a Christmas tree? Still, it's nice, he acknowledges.

I used to love my family's Christmases--we didn't celebrate, we got the hell out of Dodge. We went to Cape Cod and stayed at a Howard Johnson's Motor Inn for a few days. It had a heated indoor swimming pool--we kids lived in the pool for hours, splashing and racing each other. Our mother, who craved warmth, sat in the sauna. She and my dad were in one room, the four of us kids in another. I remember reading A Nun's Story in the bathroom while my younger siblings watched cartoons on the T.V. At night we'd stroll around the deserted streets, and eat "lobster rolls," pieces of indistinguishable fried lobster on a hot dog bun. Good times, children, good times.


Anonymous said...

I remember Christmas on Cape Cod, too! The big fruit basket that we always got. And visiting the candle factory. I remember turning out the lights in the pool room, and turning on the lights under the water, and going swimming, just the 4 of us, with the pool to ourselves, feeling like a glow-in-the dark mermaid.
Love, Em

Anonymous said...

This year as I transition to Judaism I lit the candles on my menorah and said the prayer in English. Every night since last Friday I have performed this ritual. I am actually sad that tonight is the final night. On Monday after my acting class that I love where I must be interviewed as my sister (with whom I have always had a love/hate thing), I am rushing off to a rented house in Lake Tahoe with my 2 best lesbian friends, my ex and his best friend from Germany, a woman to whom I rent a room in my home and 5 little dogs. I thought my friend Morris was going to come with us but I ended it with him last night because he said, "Why did I want to become a Jew? What was the point?" AND he added quite loudly in a public place that he didn't need anyone ever. And that he never had "attached" to me. Usually this kind of thing would break my heart but I thought of my friends and the house in Tahoe and the warmth of the fire and their care and love and the amazing people in Richard Seyd's class and how he is pushing me beyond my safe places and I said to myself, "I do need people. And how sad for Morris that he actually BELIEVES the crap he tells himself." I also knew that when someone who can and will connect with me and really SEES me comes along, I think NOW I will be able to tell." But to Morris I said, "I wish you well. A long and happy life (and I meant it) kissed him goodbye and walked out of the restaurant." I never looked back. Instead I headed over to Zellerbach and watched Mark Morris' Hard Nut and laughed and was filled with a spirit of peace. Because FINALLY I get it. And that's what Christ's message was all about really. Feeling and acting upon the love that is everywhere ALL THE TIME and mostly inside of each of us. So to you reading this remarkable blog by this remarkable writer, I say light the candles in the menorah AND/OR on your tree. Because we all end up in that light no matter which ROAD we walk upon. THAT light is everywhere and can never be destroyed. Shalom, namaste and all the rest to all of you.
Love, Joanna