Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Coupon Shoes

The Coupon Shoes
I haven't seen Leslie, my most excellent shrink, in many moons and it is doubtful that I will be able to afford to see her again so I am trying to keep myself on track by summoning reruns of our conversations. The most excruciating, albeit meaningful, exercise she dragged me through was the worst case scenario. I thought business had finally recovered from the double whammy of the writer's strike and legal expenses due to problems with my father's estate planning. We had several good months. I didn't tackle anything big in the house like installing a shower in our bathroom or the repair of the crumbling deck but I splurged on the big marked down TV. at the Costco, sort of a modest acknowledgement that the worst was over. September was an excellent month and October started off just as strong until the stock market bottomed out the second week and then the phones stopped ringing. My worst case scenario vision, which Leslie dragged out of me during the dark days of the writer's strike, was pushing a shopping cart, sporting rags and filthy hair, through downtown Glendale. I laughed after telling her this, knowing that my loved ones would never let me fall so far. I still believe that there is a safety net that will protect me from descending to homeless bag lady but witnessing an astonishing 80% decline in business brings us closer to the edge than I ever would have believed. I pray I never have to make another payroll reduction.

We have never made a big deal about Hanukkah but usually there were some small gifts. This year there were no presents at all. Himself's birthmother planned a party to introduce him to friends and family in San Francisco and I bought the kids cheap outfits at Target so they'd be presentable. Their shoes were all of the sneaker variety and pretty thrashed but I had a few dollars in credit card bonus points which I redeemed to get each a pair of dressy shoes, the kind kids hate, at Nordstrom's Rack. But, they called their marked down, coupon bought shoes, a Hanukah present and they both thanked me sweetly and emphatically. The party, with much pre and post bad juju, was cancelled but I'd already made them wear the shoes to break them in. We stopped at Harris Ranch on Christmas Day. It is decorated with ancient citrus crate labels. We told them how our grandparents remembered lean years when Santa or Hanukah Harry brought only a single orange. I still wish I could return those fucking shoes.

I hope that whatever this mess we're in is called is more character building than soul wrenching for my kids. I am scared but there is a sort of beauty in the paring down and holding together. I see how strong my beloved is and how good and sweet our children are. I've spent so much of my life wishing and wanting. I am my mother's vain needy girl but I am grappling with the wantingness. There were things I thought I wanted and needed and I smashed my head against the wall and wheedled and groveled only to find myself disappointed again and again. I look now at what I have in my hand. Himself writes so beautifully that I am beautiful. My children make dogged and successful efforts to cheer me. I look at the things I've yearned for that have eluded me and suddenly I don't want them with an even greater fervor than I did.

I am trying to be chill but the office credit card machine broke and Himself was late picking up the carpool and the kids were nervous and of course I had no way of reaching him by cell phone and I worried there'd been a gruesome accident but it was just a long line at the library. We are nesting these days and have not initiated or participated in any social activities. I interact with my employees and the bootcamp girls have scraped me up again and again but otherwise, I have pretty much kept burrowed away with the immediate family. Himself and I both sleep restlessly. I talk in my sleep, repeating the same phrases again and again and am as befuddled by this as is my beloved. I was weary, bone, heart and soul but Andre is in town and we suspended our hibernation to join him for dinner.

Andre is the boys’ former Hebrew school teacher who worked with the sixteen year old on his bar mitzvah. He is now the director of the youth program at a giant shul in Toronto. He recently completed his degree in Jewish studies. Andre (despite his affinity for hockey and Allison Krauss) is African American. In the bosom of the Jewish Community, Andre conjures the spirit of Leo Bloom wandering through Dublin, a Jew in a sea of Christians but a Dubliner nonetheless.

I have mused here about the Jewish philanthropic community's laundering of dirty money. I wrote about Sheldon Adelson and Michael Milken and at the time the name Bernard Madoff would have meant nothing to me. (Although I do have a terribly cheesy cookbook his wife edited called Kosher Cooks America.) The Orthodox movement has no interest in insuring that kosher slaughterhouses don't violate basic human rights, more concerned that both the cow's trachea and esophagus are sliced through with a back and forth sawing motion. Israel has bombed the shit out the Gaza Strip, and it is true that I have never even been there and would probably change my mind about how fucked up this is if were I to visit and drink in the vulnerability of this tiny sliver that is my homeland. Lately I have been at the lowest level of warm fuzzy feeling about my heritage since my father told me, after he and Mom had foisted me off to Vacation Bible Camp for cheap childcare, that I couldn't have Jesus in my heart because I was Jewish.

It seemed that perhaps American Jews were a few steps farther out of the ghetto than our black counterparts but Bernie Madoff drags us down beneath the level of armies of bling flauntin', gun totin', trash talkin' misogynists. I told Andre that it's a rotten time to be a Jew but at least he could feel smug about being African American but he said that he'd had words with his mother because he was under racializing the presidency. I said it was a tribute to Andre's mom that she could raise a kid whose sense of possibility was unfettered by issues of race. He noted that he had been chided by some distant relatives for not "talking like a black man" and we discussed how race masks the real chasm that is economic and educational.

I was born this way but I sat with Andre and Himself, who both note the grounds for cynicism, but made the choice to become Jews. Rabbis, I believe are obligated to discourage conversion at least three times before allowing a candidate to begin the process. I presume it was the same in Andre's case as in my husband's. The process was rigorous and there was nothing pro forma about it.

It was exhilarating and raised my sagging spirits enormously to banter with two Jews by choice. I've been thinking that this would always be the Hanukah of the coupon shoes but some other memories that I'd back-burnered came to the forefront after we kibbutzed with our own African American Jewish hero and teacher of our children. The first is that even though there were no gifts, it was very important to my boys to light the Hannukiah every night. One night Himself and I were beaten down and knowing that there were no presents, I sort let myself forget and went to bed. Both kids expressed disappointment at this. We took a little Hannukiah on our trip and it shone brightly in the windows of a shabby S.F. vacation apartment and then in the ancient Mount Hermon cabin.

We do not eat pork or shellfish and even as my Judaism creeps to more and more nominal territory, I can't imagine that I ever will. I have never ordered my kids not to eat treif but except for a few accidental ingestions, they didn't. We were camping with a large group in Big Sur a few years ago and the 16 year old decided he wanted to eat bacon and I wasn't particularly fazed and he ate quite a lot of it over the course of a few days. I affirmed that it was his own personal choice but I haven't seen him eat shellfish or pork since then.

Birthmother is tetchy on the Jewish thing. When she first learned I was Jewish, she said the cruelest and most devastating thing anyone has ever said to me which is that I look like Golda Meir. She and her husband sent us some crab legs for Mother's Day and I politely told them, because I didn't want to lie about how delicious the crab was, that we observed this Jewish dietary tradition but it didn't sit well and they responded that they were surprised we observed this Orthodox (i.e. fanatical) custom. We dined with them in San Francisco. I was interrogated by the husband about why I wouldn’t eat the shrimp laden eggplant when I hadn't been reared in the tradition and I explained that it was a choice I'd made many years ago, a small gesture to honor the God of generations that comforts me, but I don't think he bought it. Birthmother went over the menu with the 16 year old and said, "Oh that has pork in it. You don't like that" and he said, "I do like it" (He really ate a ton of bacon in Big Sur) "but I choose not to eat it."

My prayer is usually multitasked with driving duties and has grown more and more free form and conforms less to Jewish rhythms lately. I try to create a space more open to navigating in God’s light but more and more I’ve reverted to immature and superstitious spontaneous divination, a spiritual practice about as profound and soul changing as blowing out candles and making a wish. The morning after our dinner with Andre, I found myself reciting the Shema,
Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad
Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed.

Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Praised be the name of the glory of God's sovereignty for ever and ever.

It had been a long time and it is good to be reminded who I choose to be. In the face of Bernie Madoff, the obscene flouting of the spirit of kashrut in Iowa slaughterhouses and Israel’s taking of civilian lives, the imperative to live this choice authentically is even greater. Obama's election is a wonderful inspiration and also presents a big challenge for the African American community. I hope it inspires and challenges American Jewry as well and also that at this time of great shame, we remember our own many heroes too. Yeah, like Golda Meir. And yes, I am a shallow piece of shit to whither at being compared to her. I hope our financial terror is just a short bridge from an age of greed and avarice to a simpler time when we embrace only the sweet and the pure. May the light of God’s abundant love make it clear just what it is we really need.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

I like how we both had been fussing over our recent blog entries that we revised to include Our Dinner with André (I think he does not use the accent, but as I have that international keyboard for Irish, I use the accent promiscuously, as in "début," or "José" to show it off.) It also shows how we both try, in our own secularized, skeptical, detached ways, to fumble towards integrating the transcendent with our daily lives, which is as it should be, no matter the label or its lack for such hybrids as us. Shabbat Shalom, l'chod dodi. xxx me