Like her slowing breaths, a cool breeze begins to approach, tickling the back of your neck, making you suddenly aware of your cold extremities. Tall peaks all around turn from a rusty brown to a golden red, their colors never more true than in those final moments of daylight. Small birds sing and chirp to each other as they fly to their nests, finding shelter for the impending cold and darkness. In the distance, dogs bark their final goodbyes to far off neighbors, their broad chests sending a hollow echo through the canyons.
It is here where the desert and the woman spill their secrets, fatigue making the rough, hot appearance suddenly vulnerable, penetrable. The haze disappears, and if you’re not looking directly at the sun, directly into those bright eyes, there is a sudden clarity to her, the desert. Trails and cacti are illuminated. Hawks wheel around in tall circles in hunt of their final snack. A star glistens. She makes a confession while staring at the ceiling.
In those final moments of daylight, desert greens and blues and pinks and reds and browns and yellows all meet. The woman’s laugh is introduced to her tears, her moments of utter solitude and privacy are shown a partner, body and mind stripped naked. As her breaths come at longer intervals, so too is the desert’s song of life broken apart by elongated silences. Dry brush rustling in the wind reminds me of her closed eyes, her lips parting as her jaw relaxes, her face still like the top of a plateau, the valley of a canyon, the peak of a mountain.
Desert insects begin their steady chirp, and she purrs herself to sleep. Fading yellow light on the horizon seeps through the last of the day's clouds, coming out red, as she slips into a dream, half the sky now orange or pink, tucked in behind mountains, the other half a blue quickly running towards black.
It always seems that in an instant she goes from half awake to dead asleep, gone in a dream, walking the paths of a world you can’t access. The desert night too goes quickly from a navy blue to black, from the first glimmers of stars peeking out to a sky like you’ve never seen. Suddenly there are 5, 10, 50, 100 stars shining above your head, flickering like candles, daring you to believe that you’re somehow special. Like the freckles on her face, the longer you look the more there are, the more to count, the more impossible it seems to understand the depth of the woman, the sky, the desert.
Those stars and her dreams are the real grand finale. Uncountable now, the galaxies millions of light years away demand your awe, laughing at the feeling that you're somehow the center of it all. With a moment of thought, they are totally incomprehensible. She may murmur a word inaudibly in her sleep while the desert night sky whispers its wonder. Her, the sky, the desert, making you feel incomplete and whole and curious and desperate to know all at once. I peer at the sky like I look at her when she isn’t looking at me, wanting to know what’s behind the stars, the freckles, what the darkness really holds or how long those stars on her face will shine the bright lights of their fire onto me.
Slowly, as with the woman, I’ll fall asleep to the desert. Counting the sky’s stars and her freckles again, because the exercise is so impossible to resist, impossible to complete. I trace her nose, the milky way of her face, stare off at venus, the brightest planet in the night sky. My eyes are heavy and I’ll drift off into my own wonder, walk the paths of my own dream, and slowly she, the desert, will wrap herself around me, a cool comfort until the bright morning comes again, until the closest star of them all pokes its head up to say hello.
10 years ago, during my first summer in West Texas, I made a companionship with Heidi when she was four and I was 14. It was a companionship I’d never forget.
For hours on end we’d walk the desert together, both by foot or her chasing me on a dirt bike. She’d crouch and throw her hackles up when a rattlesnake or coyote was nearby. Once, during my first week or two here, after she’d follow me from room to room and everywhere I walked, I tried to shake her by getting on my bike and flying out through dirt trails at top speed, taking random turns at forks in the road and blasting over ridges, kicking up dust on the way. After five minutes, six or seven turns and seemingly losing her, I turned the bike over on a tall embankment and — once I managed to stand it back up — couldn’t get it started. The sun was setting and panic slowly began to set in with every failed attempt. The desert’s cool, still darkness approached. Suddenly, over the ridge, I saw Heidi’s bouncing head looking up, sniffing the ground, looking up, sniffing the ground, advancing towards me. I was so happy to see her that when she approached I got on my knees and hugged her, asked her feverishly to show me the way home before walking my bike behind her and following her the rest of the way. Today, 10 years later, Heidi now 14, with cloudy eyes and a white face, the same age I was when I met her, we went for a walk in the desert again. She had been looking at me with that begging look of a dog as I sat at my computer writing, and after five or six minutes I finally succumbed and enthusiastically said, “Ok! lets go!”
She jumped onto her hind quarters, the most I’ve seen her move since I arrived on Thursday, and then spun away and broke into a slow jog. But it was the slowest we had ever walked together, and I followed behind her patiently. We moved through the rain as I listened to the earth break apart underneath my boots. Every twenty or thirty yards, Heidi stopped and looked over her shoulder to make sure I was there, the same way she did 10 years ago when I had little experience with the land or knowledge of where we were, when I really needed her.
After about 15 minutes of walking I froze in thought; left out of the driveway onto the dirt path, left at the first fork in the path, right at the second fork in the path, over the ridge, around the first boulder, down into the valley and up and to the left at the third fork. I knew this way, this route, it was the same path Heidi followed me on that first week of knowing her when I was trying to disappear. I looked up and she was staring back at me knowingly, waiting for me to keep walking so she could keep walking.
We carried on this way for another 15 minutes until we arrived at the steep embankment where I had turned that bike over so many years ago. She stuck her nose up into the wind and stood staunchly, taking in the desert, the memory, maybe even catching the scent of a coyote or mountain lion in the distance. I felt tears well in my own eyes at the way she knew, or even the coincidence, because either explanation was magnificent.
“C’mon Heidi, lets go home,” I said to her deaf ears.
She put her nose to the ground and began retracing our steps, and then she broke into a sprint, almost looking four years old again, like the dog I first met that would jump a good eight feet from one bed of a pick up truck to another just to chase a stick. She looked back at me and jumped, her paws hitting my thighs and her nose buried into my stomach as I rubbed her ears. I swear she smiled. And I smiled too, just watching this old dog with her white face and her cloudy eyes and now her muddy feet and wet fur be happy, feeling young again, just a desert dog in love with her domain.
Back at the house, she’s standing on the short wall of the porch, holding guard, looking over me and the valley and the mountains. And maybe she’s even remembering the way we used to sit out here together so many years ago as I guzzled down the first beers of my life and looked at a horizon I didn’t know, taking in the rocky scent of a cactus-ridden land I never guessed would call me back again all this time later.
Music to Words is an experiment focused on the way music can inspire writing; you're encouraged to listen to the song as you read, since the piece was written while it played.
She sits up on her knees in bed, tucking her legs under her body, and I know she has something important to say. I watch the way her lips stick together then come apart as she speaks softly to me, her eyes only looking up from her hands when she wants the words to hit.
Secrets spill like red wine and I wonder how I found someone as honest as I try to be. I reach up and tuck her hair behind her ear, holding her cheek and letting her kiss my hand, wanting nothing more than for her to know I understand, I hear her, I adore her. We press our foreheads together as if we were willing our thoughts into each other’s mind.
Our lips brush against each other with whispers of fear.
“Baby,” she says. The word comes from somewhere deep inside her, like a hallucination that made it to her throat and snuck past her teeth, only loud enough for me to hear even if there was someone standing right next to us. I silently thank G-d there isn’t, just happy to have her to myself.
“Baby,” I say back to her, desperate to be heard but hoping she can’t read my mind, hoping she can’t hear how much I mean it.
I tell her she’s beautiful and she purses her lips together, clenches her jaw and chews away a smile, a slight blush in her cheeks the only hint she heard me, the only clue that she felt the word: beautiful.
We laugh at her absurdity and roll into each other’s arms, her biting my lip and me with a handful of her hair at the base of her neck.
“BABY!” I yell this time, like I’m joking, like I’m not imagining screaming it from the top of an empty roof, like I don’t wish I could yell the word at the concrete streets of New York.
“My baby,” I think to myself. She laughs again and peels back my bottom lip, then strums her perfect nails on my teeth. I watch her eyes as she watches my mouth and smiles to herself, like I’m not even there. I bite her fingers and spit them out, wanting her attention again after not having it for just a moment.
“Baby,” I whisper, and then I kiss her. Our lips touch and the room dissolves. She smiles when I press harder, fighting the way she is pulling my head back by my hair. We laugh to each other and kiss again, this time a bit harder, this time like we’re trying to stamp each other’s mouths with lust. I take my thumb across her eyebrows and then let my index finger fall down the bridge of her nose, a man blind with love memorizing a face he hopes to find in the next world. She digs her nails into my shoulders and I bury my face in her neck, smelling the softness of her skin and tasting the way she’s let her guard down.
“Baby… baby. Baby… baby, baby, baby, baby…”
She rolls on top of me and grabs my face with one hand while she holds my wrist with the other. We growl at each other until we laugh again and I use my free hand to hold her by her waist, letting her know she's stuck here if she wants but she’s also free to go. There’s a pause as we catch each other’s eye and suddenly our smiles are washed away with the seriousness of a look that has a thousand poems behind it.
“Baby,” we say at the same time, both reaching for each other’s faces with the precision of synchronized swimmers. Our lips pass over each and instead we embrace, a hug or a hold more important and more loving and more communicative than a kiss could ever be. She puts her lips on my neck and I bite her ear and with the weight of it all on top of me we both exhale our fears and breath in each other’s comfort.
“Baby,” she says again, this time with satisfaction, this time with confidence, this time like she knows I’m there and she knows I understand her, I hear her, I adore her and she knows, now, she’s my baby.
Music to Words is an experiment focused on the way music can inspire writing; you're encouraged to listen to the song as you read, since the piece was written while it played.
“He sounds like how heartbreak feels,” she said.
I knew exactly what she meant; I felt it in my chest, the hollow tension. His voice was like ice skates on a freshly frozen pond, a quiet cutting. And for a fleeting moment, I could hear those skates, whispering over the ice, above the buckling subway tracks beneath me.
As the concrete beams flew by, I considered our conclusions. “Fate always has Her way,” we had agreed. And that’s why I liked her; the honesty. But I knew I’d fight it anyway. I knew I’d push back on that fate, because a person who speaks their mind is few and far between.
Real honesty, I thought, is a lonely drag on a cigarette, a view of the sunset on an empty roof, nobody to enjoy it with. A face of freckles that you can only see in your imagination, or the cold October water of the Atlantic. We beg for that kind of honesty, but do we really want to hear it? Do we love the words, “this isn’t right for me,” or would we rather bathe in the “I love you’s,” even when they aren’t real?
Real honesty is admitting you walk slower now, and it’s nice noticing the moon again. Real honesty is the way the elevator counts down the floors; 5, 4, 3, 2… and you are scared of that moment when the doors finally open, ‘cause you know you’re walking out for good.
Real honesty is loving someone even when you don’t know them. Real honesty is shaking your head at the people who can’t fall for someone in a sentence, in a breath; what takes you so long?
Real honesty is the nuance of it all; a 3 train running local north of Times Sq., the same way she may only like hot sauce in the morning. Real honesty is admitting you wish she could have been on the train, just to see the way you stared at your feet and listened to the tracks below; real honesty is wishing that she could see the way you watched the subway map and wondered why something so simple, getting from point A to point B, had to be so tricky. The subway road on, though, and it always does. But wouldn’t it have been nice if she could have been there? Standing in the corner, cheek against the pole, hand on the railing, watching. She would have seen me with my elbows on my knees, my chin in my hands, taking a breath. She would have seen how I twirled a lighter in my fingers, counting the spots on the floor. She may have stepped forward, her face off the pole now. I’d run my hands through my hair and look at the ceiling, begging for a distraction from it all, not realizing that what I wanted a distraction from was standing right there. A street musician would strum the first notes on his guitar, and apologize in advance to the car for bothering them. I’d smile at the older woman across from me, amused at the redundancy of performance. But we’d be glad for him, and I know that, because her heart aches must be forty years greater than mine, and I needed his music the way a panting dog needs a bowl of water. She’d see this exchange and smile, remembering how I had a way with people. I’d lean back against the seat and rest my head on the worn subway windows. The car would begin to slow and she’d stop hiding her stare now, looking right at me. I’d rest the lighter against my knee, spinning the wheel and sparking a fire, and she’d know it was her I was hoping to find in that flame. We’d be close to a complete stop, and she’d still be staring, but I’d be watching my reflection in the glass instead, always trying to figure out what it is that’s inside me. Suddenly I’d hear the waves breaking; I’d catch a scent of that Cape Cod breeze. The bells would ring and the PA system would click on.
“This is, Utica Ave,” a woman would tell me. I’d snap out of my daze in time to see the back of her head as she exited the train, her hair pulled over her shoulder. I’d wonder to myself how long I’m going to see her in the strangers, and she’d bite her lip as she walked away, holding back something she didn’t understand either, and just then the doors would close behind Her.
A friend of mine recently asked me a series of quick questions like, “how are you? How do you like Israel? What is your life like there?”
With little time to answer, I tried to be curt and honest in my response. Here is a more expanded version of what I said to her:
I’m doing sporadically well. Some days I feel spiritual, as if God illuminated me in everything I did. I walk down the street and things seem to have a purpose. These are usually the days where God makes sense to me, where Judaism feels not like a distant ancestral line but an oath of laws the men and women of my bloodline took centuries before my own parents were born. Other days I feel lonely and angry and out of place. These are the days that the world seems to make much more sense to the religious than it does to me. These are the days when a rabbi tells me that the law of the Torah insists a man who pays someone to kill another man cannot be persecuted in a Jewish court because God will take care of him in the next world (this isn’t the only reason, but it is a fundamental one). These are the days when, over Shabbat dinner, a friend in my program tells the story of the gay couple that got married in his reformed synagogue, and the wife of the Rabbi – an otherwise beautiful, loving, caring individual who happens to be a phenomenal cook and a great mother – explains what my friend just said to her 8 year old son by saying that “something not very nice happened in his synagogue.” It’s when I hear the disdain in her voice that I realize we are on different planets, that when I heard the story I thought of beauty and freedom, and that when she heard it she thought of the demise of the Jewish people. Israel (Jerusalem specifically) is a very, very intense place to live. It is a lot and it is all the time. It is impossible to live here without contemplating the actual reasons for existence and my secular or atheistic or whatever-you-want-to-call-it attitude is challenged and ringed out every day. I’ve had some new and enlightening thoughts about the possibility that God may exist and I continue to have moving experiences with myself, gaining an understanding for who and what I am. I am changing.
The first month is in the books, and as I expected it has turned time into a conundrum. While I feel like I have lived a year of experiences, thoughts and revelations in the last month, I also feel like I arrived only 10 days ago. With some time to think on it, I’ve tried to put together a list of the things I’ve grown to love and hate about this country, and I’ll do my best to tie in some stories about the last few weeks on the way.
5 Things I Love About Israel
Weather – Some of you might read this first one and immediately laugh at the thought of me in a Middle Eastern climate. For anyone that’s ever spent an hour with me outside, you know that I have a tendency to go from red to redder to the reddest (“apple head,” as Nate Sandlar once so endearingly called me). The sun is not something I’d describe as my friend. Despite that, I have fallen in love with the weather here in Israel. It is true that the sun is brutal, and between the hours of 1pm and 3pm I generally avoid being outside. However, the weather here is consistent. It has been sunny and cloudless, no chance of rain for a single moment I’ve been here. When I say that, I mean it – no afternoon thunderstorms, not a single grey to moderately dark cloud, no drizzles, nothing. There is no humidity, ever. Each day, the sky is blue and clear and the sun is bright and loud. Around sunset, the weather goes from great to phenomenal. There is nothing better than dusk in Jerusalem. The entire city turns to gold. The Dome of the Rock glistens, the tops of buildings shine, a cool breeze sets in and the nights become the kind of cool that made calling someone cool a good thing. It’s cool in the way that you can wear long pants or a long sleeve shirt but still enjoy the breeze shirtless without ever being uncomfortable. It’s cool in the way that you can have your hood up without feeling hot, but then sit down on a bench or on the ground and feel it still warm to the touch from the sun that was up just hours ago. With little exaggeration, the weather here is perfect.
Tradition – It is easy to uphold American traditions that are less than 300 years old, and we still do a pretty crappy job of it. But here in Israel, the people uphold traditions that are thousands of years old, and they do it well. For example, yesterday marked the conclusion of Tisha B’Av, a holiday of mourning that designates time to reflect on the destructions of the temples and the many tragedies the Jewish people have faced. Interestingly, the Jewish people have faced many hardships during this “holiday.” According to the Torah, God first implored these hardships of Tisha B’Av on us when we were stuck in the desert for 40 years, trapped between Egypt and an Israel the spies had told us was unsafe to go to. But this time is solemn, and to show respect for everything from the destruction of the First Temple to the travesties of the Spanish Inquisition the religious prohibit things like eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes, sex, study of Torah not related to the day, even sitting on regular chairs. The result is a lot of Orthodox Jews sitting on the floor in crocs. But if you are ever interested in being moved, I suggest visiting the Western Wall on the eve of Tish B’Av. When I went on Monday night, I had never seen it so packed. There were thousands of people there, many of them sobbing openly, looking and pleading to the sky for forgiveness, or salvation, or Lord knows what. It gave “Wailing Wall” new meaning to me. Whether you believe in God or the Jewish God or any God at all, what is simple fact is things like the destruction, the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, they all happened – and these people are poised not to forget. My people are poised not to forget. That is something I admire (There is a story I’ve heard told about Napoleon giving the Jews a blessing. According to legend, he once came upon a Jewish settlement that was in mourning for TIsh B’Av. When he asked what had happened, seeing everyone crying, the people told him they were mourning the destruction of the Temple. When he suggested revenge for the destruction, they explained to him that it had happened hundreds of years before. Upon hearing this, as the story goes, Napoleon said that “if these people are still mourning the loss of a Temple that old, they will get it back”). He probably proceeded to slaughter and rape and pillage whatever town he was heading to, but it is still a great story.
“I hear” – It is impossible to know how it started, but I have picked up on a mannerism of Israelis that I find absolutely fantastic. It is so funny because almost all of them do it, whether they’re American or religious or Israeli by birth or whatever. When you’re in a discussion about a topic that there is any degree of disagreement on, and you are expressing your point, they will acknowledge what you’re saying with the simple phrase “I hear.” For instance, I’ll be saying, “it is absolutely idiotic to let someone who employs a hit man back into society without punishment. The Torah excluding him from punishment isn’t just dangerous, but it’s illogical and frankly just dumb. A 10 year old has better sense than that.” To which the Rabbi would respond, “I hear, I hear…but…” and so forth. Something about the way those two words hit you is more comforting than “I understand,” or “I got you,” or “I get it” – no, they hear you. I love it. And my roommate called me out on using the expression a lot recently, so I guess it’s really starting to rub off on me as well.
Hebrew – Hebrew is the most logical, simple, archaic language there is. It might not be the oldest, but it definitely sounds the oldest. And it makes sense. Every single word in Hebrew has a three-letter root, or a shoresh, and is then sandwiched with a prefix or suffix that gives it tense, gender and plurality. Even better is that every root word relates to the word it creates. For instance, most of you probably know the word “Shalom” means hello, goodbye and peace. The shoresh of this word is made with the Hebrew letters shin, lahmed, and mem (shin makes the S sound, lahmed the L sound, mem the M sound). What this shoresh actually means is “whole.” So when someone says Shalom, they’re really wishing you peace – which can be described as “being whole.” Then, when someone says shee-lam-tah, which is spelled with the same root letters (shin, lahmed and mem) as shalom, even if you’ve never seen this word you know it has something to do with “being whole.” Shee-lam-tah’s actual translation is “did you make whole?” or, in English, “did you pay?” The entire language runs on this structure, so if you learn 50 or 60 root words and some grammar you can actually begin to understand hundreds and hundreds of words, phrases, expressions and sentences.
Shabbat – We’ve been over this a bit, but I’ll just say that ending the week by turning off your phones and computers and TVs and spending the time eating, drinking, singing, dancing and reflecting is simply unbeatable.
Honorable Mention: Shwarma – with little rival, the best junk food in Israel.
5 Things I Hate About Israel
Cost of beer – In Israel, they don’t sell beer by the case. This is true in every single part of the country that I’ve been to (if anyone knows differently, please let me know). They don’t even sell six packs. You can only, whether in a bar or a gas station or a liquor store, buy beer by the individual bottle or can. I don’t think I need to say much else about this.
Women – Whether they’re Israeli or American, women in Israel are tough to love. The Israeli women are drop dead gorgeous. I mean that – I’d say upwards of 70% of the women here are what I’d classify as good looking and almost half are just absolutely beautiful. They’re all tan, confident and in great shape (the latter two usually a product of their time in the armed forces). This is not me speaking; this is a general consensus. Even an Israeli girl I spoke to who went to high school in Atlanta and then moved back here said that “in the states, I’d say like 2 or 3 out of every 10 of my friends were pretty. Here its like 8 out of every 10.” Her words ladies, not mine. While this is cool for a tourist, the reason they fall under the hate category is because they are absolutely unapproachable. I don’t mean just in a bar setting or at a club or on the beach – I mean that almost every single Israeli girl I’ve met, with the exception of the ones I’m introduced to through a mutual friend, immediately assume I am some low-moral, arrogant chump from the United States who is just trying to sleep with her. I’m not saying that they don’t have good reason for this feeling because I’ve seen a lot of American guys crash and burn while trying to make passes on Israeli women. But still, it is undeniably frustrating that you can’t approach a stranger of the opposite sex here without her immediately assuming you want to go home with her. On the other hand, all of the American women here are busy falling left and right for every Israeli guy they see, so I kind of hate them too. Not even in the jealous hatred kind of way, but just in the way that they’re giving American women a bad reputation the same way the American guys fumbling over Hebrew pick up lines they’re attempting on Israeli women are giving me a bad reputation.
Racism – It is important to understand that racism here is not like racism in the United States. This isn’t, “oh that damn Mexican stole my job” or “black people are good at basketball” racism. This is, “those Arabs are going to try and kill my children. I’m not going to sit by and watch as they blow themselves up in my synagogue.” Or, on the other side, its “those dirty Jews are stuffing my family into refugee camps like sardines and their corrupt military is putting bullets in my children’s head for throwing a rock at their tank.” This racism is not surface, skin color, financial standing racism. This is racism about the core of someone’s character – his or her intentions to do harm, to kill, to ruin, and to destroy. It is a racism that burns inside people with thousands of years and millions of lives of momentum, fervor and angst. Racists here don’t want the person they hate to use a different water fountain or find a new job – they want them dead. In no way do I mean to imply that all or even most people are racist, they’re not. What I do mean is that I have encountered it, and when I have it has held bitterness like I’ve never seen.
“Religious” People – “Religious” people, in my mind, are those that dress the part but proceed to live with actions that don’t match their attire. For me, these are the worst kind of people. They are worse than the close-minded religious zealots who are actually obeying everything about their Good Book they know. They are worse than the stubborn atheists who refuse to believe in God and look down on believers as stupid or naïve. “Religious” people are like the man who sat at my table for a Shabbat dinner amongst 90-100 people, wearing tsis tsis and a kippa and a black hat and used the “N” word to describe four different players on the Miami Heat. When I asked him politely not to use that word, and explained to him that it made him sound both like an idiot and a racist and made the rest of us look bad, he stared at me dumbfounded and said, “Well I don’t know how else to explain them.” In other words, this man believes he has the brain capacity to make decisions about the reality of God, devote his life to it, spend hours studying Torah, but can’t think of a better word than “nigger” to describe Chris Bosh. This man epitomizes “religious” people.
Guns – Guns are cool. That isn’t a misleading or tricky statement. They look badass, they are intricate, they are complex, they come in different variations, they are loud, they are expensive, they blow stuff up and you have to get permission to own one. They are cool. But I hate them. I don’t hate them in the way that I wouldn’t go to a gun range and use one – in fact that sounds like a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Still, the truth is that here – in Israel – they are everywhere, and they are a constant reminder that they need to exist. Amongst my American friends, we’ll be walking down the street wrapped up in an engaging conversation about this place and all it will take is a group of soldiers walking by for our conversation to break off for a moment. It is impossible not to look, to pause, just for a moment, and consider that those guys are armed with killing machines that can’t leave their sides. Something about their presence here is eerie in an utterly unpleasant way.
Honorable Mention: Wifi – usually, I have to type these emails in Word and then copy and paste them into an email during a brief moment of Internet connectivity from the Camel’s belly.
There are many things I’ve never said to my father.
Last week, on the dawn of his fifty-seventh birthday, I began to write some of these things down. I’m not sure what inspired me to do it; perhaps it was my lack of finances that made any other present impossible.
Maybe, I’ve begun to think, it was the fact that I had just turned 22 years old, graduated college and started to be retrospective.
Most likely, it is the same reason I do much of my writing: for fear that if I don’t now, I won’t ever. And how can one read the un-written? How could my dad know things I’ve thought about him but never expressed?
The first thing that I wrote down on my list of “things I never said to my dad” was that I loved him. Sure, I had said the words “love thee” when we got off the phone. Certainly, I had signed emails and cards with the words “Love, Isaac.” But in all of those 22 years, had I actually told him that I loved him? It shocked me to think that I hadn’t, and after 8,034 days of being silent on the issue, I think it’s time.
I love thee, dad. Not in the way I love a girlfriend or the Redskins or the blinking cursor in a Word document. No, I love thee in the way that a lion loves his pride. I love thee with a violent confidence that when we’re together I am safe, that my dad knows this world better than any man. I love thee in a way that a soldier loves another man in his platoon.
Encompassed in this love are the things I’ve never said, the things I’ve always thought and either kept to myself or denied out of arrogance.
I never told my dad that carrying his last name made me proud. I never told him the way I’d get goose bumps when I read “Saul” on the back of my jersey right before putting it on for a big game.
I never told my dad how much I loved being in a room full of people and knowing he was speaking to me because he said “thee, thy or thine” instead of “you, your or yours.” I never told him that when I heard these words used by his brothers and sister and their children that I’d expand with joy and love. I never thanked him for giving me a wild and adventurous extended family that has filled me to the brim with memories.
Despite pretending to hate it when I was a kid, I never told my dad how him reading me the newspaper out loud every morning before school sparked my obsessions with writing, sports and journalism.
Even though I spent years screaming for him to stop, I never told him how his neatly trained voice could put me to sleep or make me laugh uncomfortably because it was always surprisingly in tune.
I never told him that the lessons he taught me about moving with the flow of traffic have saved me from being late for countless job interviews, parties, classes and sporting events. I never told him that even though it used to terrify me (and it still scares most), his driving was the only one I’d trust if I needed to get somewhere in a third of the time it actually took to get there.
I never told my dad that even after four years of college, my favorite mornings were the ones that started with his voice yelling up to me from the kitchen to come down for breakfast.
I never told him that he makes the best salmon dish I’ve ever had – and that I don’t know anyone who has tried it and would say differently.
Even though it is the punch line of a few good jokes, I never told my dad that his shiny bald head actually looks pretty bad ass every now and then.
I never told him that despite all the shit talking, after all these years, I still couldn’t muster the bravery to stand up to him physically. Despite hating the reality more than I care to admit, I never told him that I am (still) scared of his old man strength.
I never told him that his backrubs are unrivaled.
I never told him that even though I bitch and moan when he plays the penny whistles to the radio and drives with his knees, it is still one of the first things I tell people about him. I certainly never told him how everyone who has ever driven with him cited these in-motion-jam-sessions as one of the most ridiculous things they’d ever seen.
I never told my dad that when he put a Frisbee in my hands before I could walk he changed my life for the better. I never told him that he is the only reason I ever found a sport I loved unconditionally, that the little 175 grams of plastic he introduced me to has given me countless friends that I now call family.
Last year, after winning my first college Ultimate National Championship, I never told my dad how thankful I was to cry in his arms. “That’s another one,” he said with a cracked voice into my ear.
I never told my dad that I play better with him on the sidelines. I never told him that through two Eastern Championships, four State titles, a World Championship, a College National Championship and countless other wins and losses it was his voice that kept me centered. Amongst all the spectators and teammates, I never told him that I always heard him over everyone else. I never told him that he has always known the right thing to say when I’m on the field.
Perhaps more importantly than anything else, I never told my dad that he inspires me to be better. For anyone that has ever had a conversation with him, you’d know my dad does not accept things without proof of their quality. He will not sit here and tell you we have the best country in the world because he sees too many flaws in it. He wouldn’t tell you that the GPS bitch that seems to always be recalculating knows a faster way than he does because he doesn’t believe she does. He wouldn’t tell you that money meant happiness because he’s seen the dollar sign dance with evil.
I never told my dad that even though he can be a crazy, angry old bastard, if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t understand injustice. Even before I knew what the words meant, my dad was telling me about racism, sexism and classism. If it weren’t for my dad, I’d probably think the United States was the only country in the world and not much else mattered; my dad was the first person to suggest to me that we needed to work together on this planet if we truly had a chance at surviving in a reasonable life.
I never thanked my dad for helping put me through college, even though he could have given up after my two older brothers had graduated. I never told my dad that even though the road hasn't always been smooth, he couldn't have chosen a better woman to mother his children.
I never told my dad that he showed me common sense was neither common nor sensible. It is something that needs to be taught, and I like to think he gave it to me.
Above all else, I never admitted to my dad that we’re more alike than I let on. It isn’t pleasant for a child to come to this realization about his or her parent, but it is a realization that can bring clarity to your life. Just like me, my dad is a liberal, Frisbee-obsessed, writerly inclined, overly-sensitive Washington Redskins die-hard. Just like me, my dad is rooted in a diverse region and addicted to incredible stories.
I never told my dad that just like him, I am a Saul.
For the birthday of mi padre and with the hope that I can encourage you to say the things you’ve never said while you still have the chance.
There are two sides of me. I’d imagine you to consider one a pessimistic side. This side of me has adopted the idea that we are nothing more than an extremely complex growth of bacteria here on planet Earth. It’s the idea that our life is simply a large-scale version of the life we understand and study on a micro level all around us. We – like the trillions of bacteria or germs on the end of a fingernail – are simply reproducing, eating, growing and then dying. Perhaps we are a cancer to planet Earth. Perhaps we’re here to destroy it. What we know is that we are in fact small on the scale of the universe the same way a germ or atom is small on the scale of our every day human life. What we can also infer from the galaxies around us is that we could be one small galaxy in one small universe that is actually one of several small galaxies in several small universes that go on forever and ever and ever. Maybe, even, if our planet were to be viewed by life from a far off distance they would see nothing more than what we see while gazing at a Petri dish though a microscope. Perhaps we’re all here to eat and fuck and die and then eventually – like all things – be consumed by mother earth. In the end, that is what happens, right? We are buried in her and left for the insects and the soil to feed on. Even if we are burnt into ashes and spread on the shores of Cape Cod, the sea will consume us in its own way. So that’s it. We take and take and take and then eventually we give ourselves back to this planet and the battle goes on and on until there is a victor. Everything in between birth and death is inconsequential.
But then there is the side of me that can’t believe that is it.
There is the side of me that thinks of the human story – the complexities, the trials and tragedies, the triumphs. I think of all the names one may encounter in a lifetime. I consider all the eyes that you meet with your own. All the fires that are burnt under the clear West Virginia skies, all the nights spent between people sharing ideas and philosophies and secrets. I consider the bonds between child and parent – the ones that are so strong a mother would step in front of a machine gun to save her son’s life. I think of those moments and I believe there is no E. coli on our planet that would risk its own life to save the life of another.
Each time that pessimistic or realist side of me sees planet earth and humanity as one blob of cancer cells living under roofs, I think of the moments in human history when underestimated men have pushed the limits of reality. I think of Einstein and Shakespeare and Lincoln and the thinkers that came before me and the ones that were born with me and the ones that will come after me and I remind myself that belief in the idea we are just spinning around on one of an infinite number of planets will make it true, make it real. I push that thought out of my head and replace it with the one that says a germ can’t look into a mirror and make itself cry. It can’t recognize its own eyes. It can’t pick out its own insecurities or project them on other people. Right now, with my bacterial thought spreading ironically like a virus, I remind myself of the human story. The way someone’s past can be so known and unknown, infinite in its own complexities as it’s true to some and false to others. I think of the stories of my family I have heard and wonder if maybe – just maybe – we are the first beings or forms of life in all of those atoms and bacteria and planets and galaxies and universes and infinite walls of reality that truly have a conscience, or the ability to recognize our own origins. Maybe we are the pinnacle of all this and maybe we are here to do something we can hardly comprehend yet. And maybe, just maybe, sharing our stories with each other is the way we’ll learn to break the pattern. Perhaps the difference between the bacteria and us is that we can guide the versions of ourselves that will exist in the future here and now. Maybe this moment, this story, this lifetime will be the one that shifts the cosmos and gives us all the answers we’ve been thirsting for.
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who was filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who has never lacked an appreciation of earths beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory was a benediction.”
“No matter how close two people are, an infinite distance separates them.”
“Sometimes you want to hang on to the past, but it’s enough to hear its echoes and try not to bottle them up…If you’re not careful, life repeats.”
“Try to floss at least twice a week. Try not to judge others (or, at least, recognize when you do), regret is a wasted emotion, everybody sees the same things but perceives them differently and if you like a girl but aren’t sure how she feels about you, imagine she can’t bear life without your kiss.”
“To live in the hearts we leave behind is to never die.”
“Humans are unique in a world of energy in that they can project their energy consciously…I perceived everything to be somehow a part of me. As I sat on the peak of the mountain looking out at the landscape falling away from me in all directions, it felt exactly as if what I had always known as my physical body was only the head of a much larger body consisting of everything else I could see. I experienced the entire universe looking out on itself through my eyes.”
“Developing our sympathetic compassion is not only possible but the only reason for us to be here on earth.”
“Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we're someone else, disrupting the delusion that we're permanent and at the center of the universe. Suddenly (we're saved!) other people are real again, and we're fond of them.”
“The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne's are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”
“I do what I do without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require Heaven or Hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently.”
“...[That] is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that gentlemen is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances...is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”
"But people change," he said quietly.
"Precisely. People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we've had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people." She flopped back against her chair. "Which is why vows are such a tricky business. Because nothing stays the same forever. Okay. Okay! I'm figuring something out now." She sat up straight, eyes focused somewhere outside the room, and Jimmy realized that even Anne didn't have all the answers and that was either the most comforting thing he'd learned in a long time or the most discouraging. "Maybe because so few of us would be able to give up something so fundamental for something so abstract, we protect ourselves from the nobility of a priest's vows by jeering at him when he can't live up to them, always and forever." She shivered and slumped suddenly, "But, Jimmy! What unnatural words. Always and forever! Those aren't human words, Jim. Not even stones are always and forever.”
“Watching him with one eye, she wondered if men ever figured out that they were more appealing when they were pursuing their own work than when they were pursuing a woman.”
“There are times...when we are in the midst of life-moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness-times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth....When my people search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we call it praying.”
“I honestly don't know if the world would be better or worse if we all held ourselves to the vows of our youth.”
“Rain falls on everyone, lightning strikes some. What cannot be changed is best forgotten. God made the world, and He saw that it was good. Not fair. Not happy. Not perfect. Good.”
“When the preponderance of human beings choose to act with justice and generosity and kindness, then learning and love and decency prevail. When the preponderance of human beings choose power, greed, and indifference to suffering, the world is filled with war, poverty, and cruelty.”
“When it comes down to it, I don't have much in the way of advice to offer you, but here it is: Read to children. Vote. And never buy anything from a man who's selling fear.”
“Love is a debt, she thought. When the bill comes, you pay in grief."
“Shall I tell you why young men love war? . . . In peace, there are a hundred questions with a thousand answers! In war, there is only one question with one right answer. . . . Going to war makes you a man. It is emotionally exciting and morally restful.”
“If anything could prove the existence of the soul, he thought, it was the utter emptiness of a corpse.”
“Wisdom begins when you discover the difference between "That doesn't
make sense" and "I don't understand.”
“For one who is awake,
Whose mind isn’t overflowing,
Whose heart isn’t afflicted
And who has abandoned both merit and demerit,
Fear does not exist.”
“Like a beautiful flow,
Brightly colored but lacking scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitless when not carried out.
A solid mass of rock
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is unmoved
By praise or blame.”
“Okay. As I make it out, there are four things the Takers do that are never done in the rest of the community, and these are all fundamental to their civilizational system. First, they exterminate their competitors, which is something that never happens in the wild. In the Wild, animals will defend their territories and their kills and they will invade their competitors’ territories and pre-empt their kills. Some species even include competitors among their prey, but they never hunt competitors down just to make them dead, the way ranchers and farmers do with coyotes and foxes and crows. What they hunt, they eat.”
“This was the turning point. The world had been made for man, but he was unable to take possession of it until this problem was cracked. And he finally cracked it about ten thousand years ago, back there is in the Fertile Crescent. This was a very big moment – the biggest in human history up to this point. Man was at least free of all those restrains that…the limitations of hunting-gathering life had kept man in check for three million years. With agriculture, those limitations vanished, and his rise was meteoric. Settlement gave rise to division of labor. Division of labor gave rise to technology. With the rise of technology came trade and commerce. With trade and commerce came mathematics and literacy and science, and all the rest. The whole thing was under way at last, and the rest, as they say, is history. And that’s the middle of the story.”
“Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.”
“Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.
Don’t glorify heroes,
And people will not contend.
Don’t treasure rare objects,
And no one will steal.
Don’t display what people desire,
And their hearts will not be disturbed.”
“The Master said, Do not be overly wary of deception; do not suspect others of bad faith. But he who is first to perceive the true situation is the wise one.”
“The Master said, If it’s someone you ought to speak to and you fail to speak, you waste a person. If it’s someone you ought not to speak to and you speak, you waste words. The wise man doesn’t waste people and doesn’t waste words either.”
“Two lefts don’t make a right…but three do.”
For all the men and women of words who have inspired me.
Like the calm feeling of a blanket being laid on your half sleeping body, the first snow comes with the tranquility of a long exhale.
It seldom has the uneasiness of a thunderstorm or tornado. Its precipitation does not pang or drop or flutter or twist, it simply falls. It spins. It lies.
The first snow has the serene release of fall, of leaves coming to the ground, but it is quiet. What’s left of it does not crack or rustle or crunch under our feet, it just molds to our steps.
For winters of an unknown amount of time, snow has unveiled the tracks of wild game while it has destroyed whatever is left of the crop. Today, snow is a friend to grade schoolers who need a day off and a pain for commuters who don’t need any more traffic.
But still, whether eight or 58 years old, that first snow brings a calm to us – a recognition of winter in a way that is tangible. The white layers of the pine trees give us memories of families and holidays or hardships and broken hearts. While snow quiets the world outside it brings noise to the indoors, forcing us together around a crackling fire or the sounds of wintry music.
A single snowflake weighs about .002 grams, while the average drop of water weighs about .0417 grams. In other words, one single drop of water can explode into 20 snowflakes, all perfectly unique and yet perfectly symmetrical.
If falling at an average of five feet per second, each snowflake takes an approximate 33-minute journey from the clouds to earth. 33 minutes of rising and falling against the winds, spinning through the air, only to land on the tongue of a toddler or in the hair of an old woman or on the windshield of a police cruiser or in the coffee mug of a construction worker or on the eyelash of a white tailed deer guiding her young through the blistering cold reality of winter in the woods.
Snow, found everywhere from here to Mars, has been called graupel or pellets, powdery and fluffy, granular and sleet, wonderful and horrible. The legend of snow has grown since the days it reflected off the eyes of great elk and wild moose.
Some believe it to be pieces of the clouds falling when the angels dance with God. The ancient Shinto people fear the yuki-onna, or snow women, who are whispered about for their inhuman beauty, red-lipped and pale, luring women with a crying child and men with magnificence so ancient and flawless that it is simply irresistible.
It is on these days, during the first snow, when I imagine the yuki-onna waking me up with her warm arms wrapped around my waist. It is when this first snow falls that I both fear and wish for her red lips to find my neck, for her pale skin to lay across mine the way that first snow has layered the earth around me.
No longer is the winter coming. It is now here. The first snow turns dead trees alive, bringing contrast to the darkness that has surrounded us as fall disappeared for the shadows of winter. Now is our chance to embrace this first snow, to enjoy the padding of it’s wetness on our feet, to let the visions of our own breath remind us of who and what we are. It is this first snow that gives us an opportunity to marvel at the three million odd snowflakes it takes to make a snowman, to lay down in the broken clouds and spread our arms and legs out wide and wave them back and forth and pretend to be one of those angels dancing with God on the broken clouds and wonder, just for a moment, what that dance would be like.
For the ones who this will be my first winter without, and for those who I have lost and found again underneath the broken clouds.
I carry a lighter, not because I smoke but because I find that women who do are very attractive, and on the off chance that one ever needs a light I want to be prepared. In my mind, I have a fantasy about a beautiful woman, dark lipstick, long brown hair, heavy eyeliner, looking hopelessly around the Cathedral steps for someone to light her cigarette. I see her patting down her pockets, shuffling through her purse, only to look up and see me offering exactly what she needs without her asking. In her reaction I’ll see her recognition, recognition of our fate and my deliberate manner. Somehow, she’ll know I was meant to be there to offer her that lighter on that day and she won’t have a choice but to accept my offer for a drink sometime in the near future. She’ll never know that I had carried it patiently, sometimes anxiously, waiting for her perfect figure to meet my perfect timing. Like the universe we know, her and I will begin by a spark, a flame, a Big Bang, a moment; we too will be infinite.
“Light?” I’ll ask her passively, as if I wasn’t sure what she needed.
“Oh? Thanks,” she’ll say, with a confused gratitude. “How’d you –“
“It was probably the pack of cigarettes in your hand,” I’ll tell her with a wink.
“Ah…yes…Is your name Sherlock?” she’ll ask, like a smart ass.
“Isaac,” I’d say seriously, with my hand out.
I won’t hear her name.
What I will hear is the click of the lighter, the sound of two rocks rubbing together. She’ll take her first drag deep, with an off smile, not sure whether I’m going to stay and talk or walk away. She’ll look up again, blowing the smoke out of the corner of her mouth, and I’ll be struck – quieted, muted, caught – by her eyes.
“This might seem insane,” I’ll start. She’ll lean back with a teasing smile, as if she were suddenly scared to be near me. “But, I promised myself the next time I saw you I’d ask you out for a drink.”
“How many times have you seen me?” She’ll ask, with some kind of insecurity in her voice, taking another drag.
“Twice, before today,” I’d lie, knowing I had never seen her before. “I’m not asking for a date, just a drink, on me.”
“How about right now?” She’d ask. “I’ll go if you come with me right now.”
I’ll forget about class. About homework. About the project or that ex-girlfriend or my plan not to drink this week. I’ll practically chase her to the bar. We’ll walk in and she’ll order some beer I’ve never heard of, and I’ll fall for her; for her style, her edginess, how bold she is, how different she seems. I’ll pledge in my head to kill for the kind of beauty she has. I’ll promise myself that I won’t fall for that look in her eyes that she’s seen more than me, that she isn’t impressed yet but she’s curious, that maybe she’d be willing to give us asshole guys one more shot.
It won’t take a long time for us to consummate our chemistry in the bar in the bedroom. I’ll say that to her after, and she’ll tell me she hates the word “consummate.” I’ll love her for caring about language. I’ll lay next to her in bed and worry about the fact we slept together on the first date, and as if she can hear my thoughts she’ll say off-handedly, “that’s the first time I’ve ever taken a guy home on the first date.” I’ll believe her. She’ll look through me in a way that doesn’t make me feel as if I’m not there, but rather that she can see the way I function, that her eyes act like emotional X-ray machines, that I am somehow predictable.
We won’t talk for a while; we’ll just stare at each other. Our feet will tangle like unkempt hair, our ankles and knees and toes prodding and wrapping and curling. Our shoulders will come out from the top of the sheets, it will be cold, but we won’t move. We’ll just stare. Every few minutes a smile will crawl onto one of our faces, and then we’ll laugh, and then we’ll kiss, and then we’ll go back to staring again. I’ll push her bangs out of her eyes because I’ve seen guys do that in the movies before, and she’ll blush and look down.
After a while, her blinks will get longer, her eyes will slowly shut. I’ll take the time to stare at her make up and I’ll adore something about her eyelashes and eyebrows that just seem so feminine. Suddenly I’ll hear her take a deep breath, one of those long ones where I know she’s falling asleep. I’ll adjust my arms and body and inch a little closer and I’ll tuck my nose to the side of hers and I’ll let our lips brush against each other and I’ll take a deep breath too and then I’ll spend my first night with that girl who I had saved the lighter for and like a spark, like the Big Bang, I’ll be in love.