Somebody please tell me to shut up

There are some things about me that I can’t tell you.

I’m talking about speech, not secrets.

There are some things about me that I’m not capable of telling you because words ruin them.

I resisted my name for years. Until I was about five, I refused to say my name that is really my middle name, my second name, my mom’s afterthought. It’s only one of many names I’ve had, but knowing it leads you into a maze of incorrect assumptions. Did I know that at age three? Maybe. If I had been named like my preschool friend, Summer, maybe I wouldn’t have been so silent when the other kids asked my name.

I’m the shy kid swinging alone on the playground while the other kids play on the monkey bars.

At twelve, I must have misspoken to my best friend’s rabbi. “Are you Jewish?” he asked me as I sat by her at Hebrew school.

“Yes,” I said.

“What’s your name?” he asked, kind, hopeful.

His face fell when I told him. Confusion furrowed his brow, shock glimmered in his eye. “Don’t you know what that means?” he asked.

Yes, I did. Of course I do.

I’m a Jewish girl who can never say her name in a synagogue.

On my honeymoon, thrilled to be in Paris, I tried out my conversational skills at our first dinner. The waiter turned my question into a little joke, I’m pretty sure a pun at my expense. After that I stopped speaking except in emergencies, preferring to remain still and silent as much as possible. Silent, the waiters were much more polite.

I’m French, but only when I’m absolutely silent.

There have been more times when speech has betrayed me. It definitely did in grad school. There was a night long ago in a crummy motel room. Every time I’m driven to yell at my kids, speech stabs me in the gut.

Yes, it’s true, we’ll know each other better if I don’t speak. Silence never contradicts itself.

My algebra teacher was a prophet

A long time ago, when I was a kid, I used like being sick. I got sick a lot. I caught colds all the time, I had at least a sinus infection a month. My mom drove herself crazy dragging me to the doctor; I even had sinus surgery.

Only I was faking. For several years while I was in my early teens, it felt safer somehow to hide out at home, so I exaggerated my pain. I liked being sick, and I didn’t mind that I wreaked havoc on my life. I flunked math, and to this day I can’t do much beyond addition and subtraction. Complex equations elude me.

Around the time that I had that surgery, I had a really cool algebra teacher. I remember him with crystal clarity despite missing most of my time in his class. Mr. Cross was older, cute, male, and funny, and he liked me; in other words, he was perfect. He showed concern about my lack of mathematical ability, but much more compellingly, he showed an interest in me. Nothing out of place, just genuine concern for a girl who he could tell was stumbling.

He wrote me a message in my yearbook, and I’m telling you, I still think about it on a regular basis. He wrote, “Good luck, Christi. You’ll do great if you just stop being sick.” I liked Mr. Cross. I admired him, and I wanted his approval. So I did it. I stopped being sick.

You know, I still caught the occasional cold. I had not seen my last sinus infection. I just stopped using my colds as excuses to hide out at home. It wasn’t easy.

Years passed, and all the typical things happened: college, marriage, more college, work. And a few years into adulthood, I found myself in the gastroenterologist’s office with a bout of acid reflux. I followed the doctor’s instructions and traded spaghetti, wine, and chocolate for a daily pill that took the pain away. Just because I didn’t call myself sick doesn’t mean that I wasn’t.

At 28, I hesitated before I got pregnant with Anna. My medicine was off-limits for pregnancy. In blind faith I went cold-turkey, and I thought of Mr. Cross. I’d like to say that I willed his yearbook message to be a prophecy, but it was more like desperate hope than anything.

Blind faith paid off and I’m not sick anymore. But Mr. Cross was no prophet, only an algebra teacher smart enough to know that when you find the flow in life, things work themselves out. Thanks for the equation, Mr. Cross.

I think my dad was Walter White

My dad was a funny guy. He knew how to tell a story like his life depended on it, my mom used to tell me. She loved how he made her laugh. If he were still alive today, he’d make a great blogger, I just know it.

I never met my dad, but I really wanted to. The funny thing is that I think that he wanted to meet me, too. I’ve been reading some letters that he wrote to my godmother. His letters remind me of a Pynchon novel. In each one, he mentions me. He had an elaborate, secret plan to raise enough money for pay for my parochial school tuition. In fact, he did send me to Catholic school until he died when I was eight.

Let me explain. My dad was an alcoholic. He wore himself down with his drinking. In one letter, he guessed that he had eight more years to live. In reality, life shorted him three years. He didn’t have much of a career, aside from his job selling jewelry at a pawn shop. I gather that he sold random things to make money, but he was smooth about it. He loved to talk to people. He understood them. I don’t think that my dad would have wanted to deal drugs, but I do think that he would have been pretty damn good at it. He knew, better than most, how people become enslaved to their thoughts, to their pasts, to their hurts. He couldn’t have cared less about material wealth, except when it came to my education – and, I assume, his alcohol.

My dad cared about my soul. He wanted me to learn more than the basics, he wanted me to have religion. He thought that Jesus could offer me what he could not: love. He thought that his last few years were best spent peddling odd items here and there, raising what he could so I would be able to learn about Jesus and the saints. He died alone.

Look, my dad had a tough life and he fought more than his fair share of battles. He had his reasons to believe that he was no good for me. Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong. What I do know is that a hug and a trip to the zoo would have worked wonders on my soul. Maybe he could have thrown in a joke or two. It’s kind of ironic.

Oh, I’m not sure if this is important, but my dad decorated his letters with doodles of four-leaf clovers. He said that he wanted to go to Ireland, his homeland, and never come back. I’ve never been to Ireland, have you? I think I might plan a trip.

Let me tell you a story

My mom always prefaced the story with,”You were such a sweet little Catholic schoolgirl,” as if that meant that I should always and forever be above such things. That fact was the crux of the story, for her. I had, in my defense, only just started kindergarten at Sacred Heart Elementary. And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

The way she told it, it was dinnertime on a weeknight. I guess that made it a school night. She was in the kitchen preparing dinner. I was outside playing with a neighbor boy. Commuters made their way home from work, passing by our house and slowing down for those three — yes, three — speed bumps in the road by our apartment building.

She turned away from the stove for a minute, or maybe she looked up from setting the table, and she saw us. We were lying on the grass, atop a hill behind our house, immediately next to the street. Cars were passing inches from us. I was underneath him, he was on top of me. We both had our pants down. Undies too.

My mom dropped her spoon — or her napkins — and came running outside. This, I remember. “Chris!” she yelled. It had that particular ring to it, that tone that can only be articulated by one’s mother, that pitch that can only be reached in anger. In seconds, the neighbor boy was up and off of me, our pants were pulled up, and our deed was forever set in stone.

My mom had a dark sense of humor, and she found this event to be really funny. She liked to tell the story, and she did tell it, over and over again until its telling became more real than the real thing. I don’t remember that day on the hill, only my mom’s rendition of it. But I’ll tell you this: I do remember that kid next door. His name was Matthew, and he was a lot of fun.

Losing my religion

When I was a kid, we celebrated all the holidays. Our menorah went next to the Christmas tree, and our Easter dinner often included ham and matzoh. Go ahead, laugh. Just don’t judge me.

Let’s generalize and say that I was formally, publicly, Catholic. I attended Sacred Heart Elementary, where I learned to love Jesus, to recite Our Father and Hail Mary, and where I colored xeroxed copies of the stations of the cross. At home, my mom, my sister, my Bubbie all cursed in Yiddish and ate corned beef. I didn’t question it until much later.

As a teenager, I abruptly decided to give up Catholicism, and celebrate only Jewish holidays. I felt that the main point of religion was to honor your ancestors, never mind spirituality. I still agree with this to a point, but I have long since realized that I wanted my Bubbie to love her more. I thought that if I were more Jewish, like her, that she would. Did she? Did it work? I don’t know. She was inscrutable.

On Christmas as a kid, my mom would take me to midnight mass. I remember one year seeing a young couple kissing in their pew. That beautiful image has stuck with me all this time, that joyful and spiritual togetherness. Sometimes the memory is sweet, sometimes it breaks my heart. I never talk about it.

My mom taught me that all religions are just different paths to the same God. I agree, but I still grew up feeling confused and slighted for not having one singular religious identity like my friends did. Why did my mom choose to walk two paths at once while raising me, between the Judaism that she grew up with and her chosen Catholicism? If she were still alive, I would ask her. In her absence, I have to guess that those childhood memories are powerful and it was her instinct to share them with me. But what I would like more than anything is to experience that shared faith, that certainty in that which cannot be seen. My mom found her spiritual source in church, but she chose not to force that source on me. I understand why, but I can’t help feeling that that intangible piece of religion, the faith, is lost to me.

I’ve long since made my decision on religion, and Geoff and I basically agree: We’re happy to belong to our synagogue, to send the kids to Sunday school, and to see them developing their singular religious identities. They deserve it. And even though their Grandma does occasionally take them to church, they know they are Jewish. I’m glad to offer that certainty to them. But as for the other piece of it–the faith that I’ve only ever felt in church–how can I ever share that with them?

I went to church today

I haven’t been to church, not except for my mom’s funeral memorial, for probably close to 20 years. But I felt drawn to church today and I was not wrong. I found a lot of answers there. And many more questions than I started with. I did not have communion but I did want to. The pastor offered me a blessing, but knowing that I’m Jewish he did not offer communion. I hesitated a moment before I decided that I’m on a hunger strike.

I made this art with my daughter and my awesome mother-in-law. It was restorative and generative at once.


The essential

A few weeks ago, while my daughter attended her Sunday school class, I sat in on a meeting with the rabbi on how to make the Passover seder more accessible to your attendees. Most parents were there to learn how to make the seder less boring, more fun, for the kids. The rabbi gave lots of good ideas — toys, games, costumes, decorations. I liked her ideas, but our family always focuses holiday celebrations on the kids, especially when it comes to religious celebrations. It’s our way of repressing the discomfort of facing the question of God and the force of spirituality in our lives. Legitimately, we have a lot of religious conflict around the table, with members coming from different backgrounds, different religious worlds. The older generation has agreed on a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, and for them the seder is just another opportunity to see the grandkids. Giving the kids candy and games, eating a nice dinner, and wiping our hands of the religious side covers our responsibilities without making anyone uncomfortable.

Now, at the meeting, the rabbi brought up an idea that stuck with me. She asked what the matzoh represents. Of course the traditional answer is that is symbolizes the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But the rabbi took the time to suggest an alternate reading, that our eating of matzoh as Jews is an opportunity to focus on the essential parts of ourselves. A meditation, without ego or the commotion of expectations. What things most make us us? What work do we need to do internally to uncover that essence?

I believe that when you have an existential question, the universe puts answers in your path. Or maybe that the answers are always in front of us, like clues, but you have to ask the right questions to unlock their meanings. This year, for the first time in my life, I enjoyed my matzoh.

Maybe by next year I’ll work up the nerve to share it with the rest of the family.