Spring arrived this morning. Late this afternoon, on the way home from a day spent working in another county, I stopped by the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. The temperature was about 75 degrees. I stood in the boxcar for a long while, alone and without interruption, lost in thought and emotion. In the distance I could hear the voices of children.
For many reasons, it has taken me almost a month to read Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. Before sending it on to a friend or the resale shop, there are a few paragraphs so rich that I’m saving them here for a good laugh on those days when nothing works. I hope you enjoy this, too.
I smile to myself, remembering Bombafu. What brings him to mind, I do not know, but suddenly there he is. Bombafu means fool in Swahili; at Njoro it meant my father’s parrot.
Poor Bombafu! – one day he whistled for destruction, and it came. How sad, how naked, how disillusioned he was after the moment of his greatest triumph had shone upon him like a gleam of light, then abandoned him to the darkness of despair!
They were proud feathers Bombafu gave to the Cause of his Learning, pretty feathers, long and rich and stained with jungle colour. How proudly he wore them!
How proudly he clasped the perch in the square room outside my father’s study, day after day, looking with truculent, or bemused, or falsely philosophic eyes, on all who entered – on all the dogs of the motley pack my father fancied then!
And these were the undoing of Bombafu. Dogs were simple things, he saw, controlled by a single sound. A man would stand in the doorway of the house and make that sound with his lips – and the pack would come.
But who could make sounds if not Bombafu? Was he to remain a bird on a stick the whole of his long, long life? Was there to be nothing but seeds and water and water and seeds for a being as elegant as he? Who had such feathers? Who had such a beak? Who could not call a dog? Bombafu could. He did.
He practised week upon week, but so cleverly that we seldom heard him; he practised the abracadabra of calling dogs until he knew, as well as he knew the shape of the bar he clung to, that no dog that ever sought a flea could resist his summons. And he was not wrong. They came.
One morning when the house was empty, Bombafu slipped his perch and called the dogs. I heard it too. I heard the quick, urgent whistle that was my father’s whistle, though my father was a mile away. I looked across the courtyard and saw Bombafu, resplendent, confident, almost masterful as he trod the doorsill on hooked, impatient toes, his brilliant breast puffed and swelling, his green, and all too empty head cocked with insolence. ‘Come one, come all,’ his whistle said – ‘it is I, Bombafu, calling!’
And so they came – long dogs, short dogs, swift dogs, hungry dogs, running from the stables, from the huts, from the shade of the trees where they had dozed, while Bombafu danced under the portal of his doom and whistled louder.
I could run too in those days, but not so fast as that. Not fast enough to prevent the frustration of an anticipant dog from curdling to fury at the sight of this vain mop of gaudy feathers committing forgery of the master’s voice – insulting all of dogdom with the cheek of it, holding to ridicule the canine clan, promising even (what could be worse?) a scrap, or a bone, yet giving nothing! That was the rub’that was the injury heaped on insult.
Bombafu went down; he went under; he disappeared only to rise again, feather by feather. His blaze of glory was no abstract one. It floated on the air in crimson and chrome yellow, in green and blue and subtler shades – a burst, a galaxy, a comet’s tail of scraps and pieces.
Sad bird! Unhappy bird! He lived, he sat again upon his perch, his eyes half-closed and dull, a single tattered wing to hide his nakedness, a single moment to remember.
And the immortal line so rightly his, the only word he might have uttered, was stolen too. Surely this was tragedy – this was irony – that not Bombafu, but a dour and morbid raven, a creature of the printed page, a nightly nobody, had discovered first the dramatic power of those haunting tones, those significant syllables, that ultimate utterance – Never – Nevermore!
Last week when I reached to pull Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story from the squeezed edge of my crowded bookshelf, I was in search of something fun after weeks of lackluster reading. Since the winter’s highlight that was Moby Dick, it’s been downhill. I was in the mood for some fruition of Super Sad’s promising blurbs: “Devastatingly funny”, “snarkily funny”, “a wildly funny book…” I had no idea that the story took place in New York City, nor could I know that the hounds of serendipity had chased me to this title. Super Sad True Love Story is devastating alright, a darkly humorous and truly sad meditation on the fate of America’s greatest city and possibly the rest of us along with it.
Two weeks ago I was in New York for the first time. My five days there were relaxed and perfectly timed. I toured my son’s future college, took in a few sights, and enjoyed being with friends where we could play at fitting in while burnishing the thought of our quiet homes and the luxury of space and beauty that is life on the prairie. It seems a tiny bit unfair, flitting into a city to take pleasure from it and leaving only dollars in return. That’s tourism, but in a magnificent place like New York it somehow feels extra gratuitous knowing that many of the people who keep New York alive cannot afford to live there. As our happy little group (a psychology professor, an expert hospital consultant and me, a public health nurse) walked to dinner one night, the thought came to me that each of us is exactly the sort of person a big city can overwhelmingly benefit from. In New York there is seemingly no room for the norm, only those on the way up and those at the very top.
Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a future, scifi-like New York, one where the dollar is permanently pegged to the yuan and the real currency is youth, wealth, and sex appeal. The up-and-coming each wear a glistening, amulet-like “äppärät” that flashes their credit score, income, health, personality score, fuckability, all the data that allows them to FAC (Form A Community) with one another in the street. “Learn to rate everyone around you. Get your data in order,” are the instructions Lenny Abramov receives from his boss at Post-Human Services where he is a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator. Lenny’s job is to find high net worth individuals (HNWIs) and sell them his company’s line of concoctions and procedures to permanently reverse aging and thus live forever. Even as Lenny and his cohorts flash their high credit (if not always likeability or attractiveness) scores, the city services around them have been privatized and conglomerated into a network of shady mercenaries that protect only the few while brutalizing those who resist occupation.
Lenny embodies nostalgia for another New York, one that exists in movies and possibly never was real except for the people who should have been able to keep it – New Yorkers. He owns a 740 square foot apartment that holds his “Wall of Books”, cherished even though his co-workers sneer that books smell. Lenny is 39 and becomes smitten with a 24 year old Korean woman, Eunice Park, whose cold shoulder drives him to great lengths to win her. He woos Eunice with passion, sincerity, and some old fashioned goodness. Eunice spends her vacuous days scanning her äppärät for labels commanding the utmost prestige: JuicyPussy, AssLuxury, and Onionskins, a ubiquitously worn, transparent fabric designed to parade women’s clean shaven genitalia for inspection and ranking. Eunice barrages her friends and sister in texts about clothing and an obsession with her weight of eighty three pounds, her degree in Images and Assertiveness instantly clashing with Lenny’s hardscrabble NYU education and old world sensibilities. They are natural enemies in a relationship that is fraught and tired from the beginning and worth more than a few cringes for its age gap and differences.
Just as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was a wild throw-down of disparate types from all over the world, the love story Shteyngart writes is one of an almost violent mismatch that grinds together out of desperation and need. Lenny grovels while Eunice demands and withholds. Each presents as a stereotype of the culture from which they spring; Lenny is the son of incessantly worrying Russian Jewish immigrants and Eunice the daughter of a Korean family mired in a cycle of abuse from a tyrannical father and subservient mother. As the stories of the lovers’ families unfolded, I began to view Super Sad True Love Story as something other than a human love story, rather a love letter to the City. It’s possible to read the whole novel as an allegory, the yuch factor of the relationship emblematic of the discord with which New York exists.
As in the 17th century when the melding of like minded Puritans and Pilgrims begat the early symmetry of Boston, a genuine love story can unfold when two fairly well adjusted people meet and simply like one another. Lenny and Eunice can’t possess that luxury, even when they incessantly seek status and beauty. But this is New York, so they give it an uneasy and not completely unlovely try.
Last night I read a snippet about some asinine celebrity swearing by a process of alkalinization, or maybe it was de-alkalinization, who knows? “I thought of Eunice Park and her pH-balanced body, healthy and strong.” It was then that I really laughed at the novel I’d just finished. I can’t be a New Yorker, but as a reader I can recognize literature that is simply longing and nostalgia for something or someone who isn’t there anymore. Gary Shteyngart’s love for his city is the story here, and it’s a brilliant satire of how we all live now and what we stand to lose even more of. What Lenny wants is not Eunice.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home to the 740 square feet that used to be mine. I wanted to go home to what used to be New York City.
What Lenny has is something like her.
Welcome to America 2.0: A GLOBAL Partnership
THIS Is New York: Lifestyle Hub, Trophy City
This is a love story. If that makes you uncomfortable we can part ways right now and none will be the wiser. This post has taken months to write, longer still thinking about what I could possibly throw down in words to reflect a sea change within. This year has not taken the usual route of reading and writing. It’s been time spent looking inside, asking questions, learning and settling in to life as a Jew. Not unlike moving house, one day you are stumbling over boxes and loose ends in an effort to put things right. Soon the new space begins to feel familiar and nights in the dark don’t feel so discomfiting. You sleep soundly.
Becoming a Jew is something I contemplated for many years, even though I remember sitting in a warm Presbyterian sanctuary as a girl and feeling happy there. I enjoyed dressing up, wearing shiny shoes and being around people who were fragrant and upstanding. It was all very nice. There was only one problem, a pestering thought that rose up from time to time. In trying to speak that thought I found that there was no outlet for its acceptance or acknowledgement. This created an adolescent version of cognitive dissonance within me. The thought was my disbelief that Jesus rose from the dead. I just didn’t buy Christianity’s stronghold, and I felt like a fraud each time I confronted this knowledge within myself.
This was not a dark place to be spiritually as a child growing up in East Tennessee. I chalked it up to the necessity of doubt. Then in seventh grade I became friends with a girl who changed my life, though I wouldn’t know it for some time. She was the blondest, most gregarious songbird of a girl, and our mutual regard was instant. Her name is Jacqueline, and when we became friends I knew that there was something unique about her. She simply exuded something that I wanted for myself – a confidence and zest that’s impossible to describe. When our junior high school talent show featured her singing Come Saturday Morning in a beautiful, strong soprano voice that a couple of the students sitting near me derided as being Jewish, it felt as though I’d been slapped. My knowledge of Judaism was nonexistent. I had only the faintest schoolgirl understanding of the Shoah and no exposure to Jewish culture. But I loved Jacquie. She was outspoken and a friend to all. Known for her boisterousness in both humor and kindness, her voice was clearly finer than anything else in the talent competition. And she was being judged harshly because of her Jewishness. I knew that it was unfair but could not begin to imagine how much so. What endears me to Jacquie then and now is admiration for how she took the snub. She knew that her talent offering was the best; not only did she not retaliate against anti-Semitic overtures, she never missed a beat in remaining open to anyone. She retains this characteristic, and it serves her well as a mother, teacher, musician, and cantor.
I moved here in 1987 and learned somehow that there was a synagogue in town. I would drive by and imagine myself in attendance, sitting in the back to listen and learn. It seemed an impossibility as I didn’t know any members and knew nothing at all about conversion. This was a dark time spiritually as I felt godless and lost. Around 2000, I met a couple of Jewish women who were starting a book group. The group floundered, but one of the friendships remained. Wendy was instrumental to the slow and gradual introduction to Judaism that I took. She listens, instructs, and laughs both with me and at me along this way. She was the perfect person to travel with me to Iowa City this June for the conversion ceremony, and she cried tears of joy as I held the Torah for the first time. We learn together, the girl raised in Studio City, California, who never attended synagogue as a child and who became a bat mitzvah at age 49, and the girl who grew up in Appalachia, the child who felt the pintele yid but could not name it.
My first visit to the synagogue for Shabbat was in 2003, the same year I entered nursing school. One of the great things about going back to school is how fresh ideas seem when you find them as an adult. Along with the principles of acid-base balance, there were many exciting thinkers to discover, chief among them Martin Buber whose I-Thou changed the way I view people as a nurse and brought me closer to a Jewish understanding of God. As I began thinking differently about the world and started to catch glimpses of what can only be described as the Divine in others, I began to wonder if my absence of belief could be instead a way of searching for God. This discovery still has the power to surprise and overwhelm me. In order to find God on my own, I had to turn my back and be godless to fully break with what I didn’t believe. There are days when you could knock me over with a feather at the outcome. To make such a journey, a derekh, from someone who could not find God into someone learning to look for HaShem in everything, is a great and continuing joy.
For so long the values, music, rituals, prayers, and language of Judaism drew me as though I was being summoned home in the evening by forces of warmth and light. When I began attending Shabbat services, the congregation and rabbi welcomed me and I have never looked back. There are many Jews, the malakhim, who share with me their knowledge, understanding, and wisdom – rabbis, congregants, classmates, friends. There is S., who, without realizing it, opened a door in me through which fear vanished forever. There are those whose work and writing shapes me every day. There is Martin Buber. The tradition is so plentiful that I can only hope to scratch the surface. Judaism stands to welcome the convert as it has for more than three thousand years; now it is my home, too.