Monday, December 22, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On seasonal affect disorder; X-mas v. Xanuka;
and thoughts on mark again...again

I was at the Teaneck Scrabble club last week when one of our longtime members, Helga, confessed that this is her most behated time of year. It's not just Christmas, she said, but the entire season, "from Halloween to New Year's." It was cathartic to hear this from someone who is not Jewish. If I could have played PATINAE at that moment, I would have done so: It was a moment which, for me, wrapped up the entire Christmas thing with a pretty, tinselly bow.

Social workers who deal with holiday-conflicted Jews also have a package wrapped with a bow that they call the "Christmas Dilemma." It makes it easier for them to treat, suffer or tolerate their vitamin D-deprived semitic patients during this joyous season of merrymaking and goodwill toward men. I was married to an Irish Catholic who converted to Judaism, and I can attest firsthand that at no time was there any conflict in our lives that had to do with religious practices and holidays. His mother sent us the best Hanuka cards in the world. She had a real instinct for what worked.

I confess that I don't really recall Mum sending me anything much during Hanuka. There was a tacit understanding that money was available in small portions for presents for the children. Or perhaps Mum and Dad spent a holiday with us from time to time. Not a great reciprocator, I was always successful beyond my wildest dreams in assuring that I sent out greeting cards late, or that the plants or gifts I gave were vastly underwhelming, or sent some sort of mixed message to the recipient.

I'm not here to kvetch. I would, however, like to state that perhaps due to my upbringing I have zero understanding of gift-giving or gift-appreciating. I can send out a successful mass mailing fund raising letter, but I don't really know how to send a personal card to special someone/s who might really need to hear something intimate and tender from me. Classic example: I have not really considered presents for my kids this year, nor have I sent them any sort of touchy-feely cards or greetings. I've been pretty clammed up, in fact. Not gonna lie; not proud about it; just gonna shout about it.

Notwithstanding my inability to be gracious and classy in the gift giving department, the Xmas/Xanuka dilemma has never been my bailiwick. Christmas was part of our life when I was a child. Every year Mum would dust off the plastic holly and ornaments, and we would hang all of it around her ladies' wear store in the West End.

There was the annual Christmas party at the store during which Mum's right-hand employee, Ciel Mackenzie, brought in her fruitcake. At this point, if you are a conflicted Jew or a Christmas-celebrating Christian, you know that:

  • No one eats it
  • It never goes stale
  • It's the Picture of Dorian Gray: Somewhere hidden away is a fruitcake, sagging and wrinkly.
  • You should carbon-14 date it before it goes anywhere near your mouth

Ciel's fruitcake was different. It emitted an intriguing, chest-melting fume. Hers was pickled in brandy and sopping wet to the touch. A little whipped cream on top and coupled with a spiked eggnog, and the youngest amongst us was flying high. No wonder we had so many people stopping by the store, including the cops, security, Mum's competitors, too. And Mum always brought in a vast quantity of corned beef, pastrami, rye bread, pickles from Schmerl's Delicatessen, and a bottle of Crown Royal. Nothing was left but crumbs, year in, year out.

Despite this very sweet memory, December sucks for me. I thought I was over it, at long last. It's been a great month so far, filled with good things. I aced my semester and maintained my 4.0 grade point average. I met lots of new and interesting people at school who have been stimulating my mind and spurring my creativity. I wrote. I baked. I read. I listened. I made stuff. I guess it's still not enough. I cannot get over certain dates, long behind me, dates that visit upon me like unwelcome guests, especially when I can't see the sun for the threatening skies, and when the descending claustrophobia brings time to its knees in my brain:

  • Dec. 5- official date of death of Mark Balshin, 23, biggest love of my life
  • Dec. 8 - murder of Israel Ehrlich, Holocaust survivor, 50s, close family friend, by a 15-year-old boy and his 14-year-old girlfriend
  • Dec. 9 - accidental death of Rachel Tenenbaum, 12, school and camp buddy, who stepped out in front of a truck after school
  • Dec. 22 - Mark's birthday

I want to dedicate this column to Mark because not a day goes by when I do not think about him and remember him as though he were still here. I still dream about him. In those dreams, he is very much alive, clear eyes lovingly gazing into my own, much like they did back then. I hear all the words from so many others about how he was, but I only remember how he was to me. Special cosmic connection. Then suddenly you are left alone to carry on, and what a void that leaves. Changes you. Maybe that's what I hear in "Love Hurts" as sung by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

I keep saying I want to medicate myself if only to speed up the clock and give me a little leg up. Then, like a miracle, January 1 rolls around every year and this white noise in my head just stops cold. For your reading pleasure, here is a poem that I recited quite often on the circuit, and which I had written only a couple of weeks after he left this earth.

It predates kd lang, so you could say yes, I did write it in the e.e. cummings style. It was intentional, not having anything to do with affect. I was so alone at that moment, so completely down. For me, every letter of the alphabet was also flying low to the ground. There could be no superstar letters. There could be no elevation. Here it is. Happy holidays.

thoughts on mark again

when the fire in your veins

turns to ash

and you can’t answer

to your given name

and nobody’s on the phone

when you can’t comfort or be


when you cease

to recognize love

when you don’t feel needed

and nobody wants you

when your ears are deaf

and you stop trying

when the hope in your heart

turns to rust

when you won’t be home


when the sun leaves

your eyes

and you turn off the world

when the fridge is empty

and the oven won’t work

and nobody emptied the ashtray

when a thousand eyes

are weeping

and one candle is burning

when a sympathetic word

can’t stop the pain

when an image visits

in the night

with starry eyes

and kisses the memories

when the truth beats down

in the morning

and there’s frost on

the newly turned earth

when your song is on the radio

and nobody will tell you

when your magazines

beg to be read

when your clothes ache

to be worn

when you don’t care

and your love is no more

and you leave a hole

when people were afraid

when your signals crossed

and you made a mistake

that you can’t take back

now your pens don’t write

and your secrets are

no longer sacred

and the only witness

is your pillow

and the blankets

refuse to give a statement

and the air is thick

with confidential information

and the curtains

are acting dumb

and the television

didn’t hear a thing

when questions are answered

and answers are questioned

when you’re alone and

you don’t understand

when everybody’s talking

but nobody’s saying anything

when people you didn’t know

are apologizing

when everyone asks why

and you’re not one to say

and you can be oblivious

and you dare to

be silent

when you stop creating

and start destroying

when you need help

but won’t reach out

and you’re depressed

when you can’t show love

and you can’t take it

when you can’t remember

the last time you had fun

when laughter doesn’t

come so easy

and contentment is impossible

when humanity is

a mere abstract thought

and living doesn’t matter

when ceasing is

a good exit

and dying and escape

are the same damn thing

and you would actually do it

and not worry about

others’ feelings

when your mother can offer

no excuse

and you will never apologize

when all the tears and

hurt and anger and burning

and money and screams

won’t bring you back

when you will never ever

call me again and say

“i’m back”

to wake me from this nightmare

when all the poems

throughout human history

offer no condolence,

what will i do

what will i do