So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed into Occupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hope the issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidential campaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.
But just for a moment I’d like to look at the other side of the coin.
I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like to point out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformative social, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that graceful failure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code and suspension bridges.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failure ever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since we had two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the bright faces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls, whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned on overhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seen streaming out of Times Square after the march.
It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every age and color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those faces that is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood of humanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.
Of course justice never did roll down like a mighty river. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be a lot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children in poverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of national shame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially a lesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently two wonderful books — John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism and James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America – have documented this underground history.
Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had a theologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children in synagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failure is the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read through the arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the next goal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that the moment you begin to reify a movement — to become infatuated with success or paralyzed by the fear of failure — you have started the slow slide from revolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one of his great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lot harder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.
People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as a fantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mere escapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveal long-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of our highest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: the promise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; the promise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you do right before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek as usual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’
But in real life there are no blessed isles of Ever After. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King, Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems of socioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always on the other side of the river — and transformative social movements are always crushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood of daily trivia.
So as we talk about what it means that the tents have come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail. It was only a question of when. Occupy Wall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts at transformation fail. But if it fails well, then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have given us the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of the scroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.
Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah is a ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdom from year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for the gift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But this year I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if not exactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be feared than any other part.
That’s not a gift most of us are very good at giving our children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty of chances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually we look around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves — especially in the realm of politics — settling for the achievable compromise and then reacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hoped for bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in the most simple and unsentimental way imaginable.
And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We put up our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our children that the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in the desert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back to the beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail better next time.
When I try to explain why I wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – and why it’s emphatically not a Jewish Narnia a la Michael Weingrad — I always end up telling people that this is the book I wrote for my children.
Basically, I wrote it because I was a frustrated mother who wanted my son to be able to read a boy wizard book where the Jewish kid got to be the hero. That was the first kernel of the idea that has become the NYPD Inquisitor books: me rereading the books I remembered from my childhood, and then reading the new books that had been written since then, and realizing that the book I wanted my son to be able to read still wasn’t out there.
I wanted a children’s fantasy about a Jewish kid. And I wanted a book with all the magic, adventure, and humor of my childhood favorites, but whose mythology, worldview and characters would celebrate our family’s roots, beliefs and values.
I might as well be honest about it and admit that those values were hot pink. I grew up in left-wing New York political circles, in a predominantly Jewish but significantly multiethnic community that had its own distinctive hagiography (the Lincoln Brigade and Freedom Riders), family stories (the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy blacklist, the Peekskill riots), music (can you say Hootenanny?) and even summer camps (my mom went to Camp Redwing. Get it, wink, wink, Redwing?)
My husband grew up only a few miles away from me. Until the most recent Manhattan construction boom you could actually see my parents’ apartment building from his parents’ apartment building if you knew where to look. But he grew up in a New York that embodied a completely different version of the Jewish-American experience. His grandfather emigrated from Russia, went to work in the garment district, saved up his money, went into wholesale, and had two sons who both grew up to be cardiologists. My grandparents were atheists, his were Orthodox. My grandparents marched on Washington, his retired to Florida. And — this last sentence says it all, really — I grew up on the Upper West Side, he grew up on the Upper East Side.
I wanted to share both sides of that New York heritage with my children. I wanted to tell them about the Vaudeville musicians and the sweatshop workers, the rabbis and the wobblies, the grandfather who grew up on Avenue J, and the grandmother who grew up in Greenwich Village. I wanted to take my kids back to the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and let them see first-hand the lives, the struggles, and the values of their great-grandparents. I wanted to celebrate the special magic of New York — and the equally special magic of the loud, zany, eccentric and argumentative New Yorkers I grew up around. I wanted to get my son excited about being Jewish, excited about the Lower East Side, and curious about the vibrant intersection of Judaism and left-wing politics that contributed shaped not only our own family’s history but much of American history throughout the 20th century.
And … well … if he developed a taste for klezmer, too, I wasn’t exactly going to cry about it.
In one sense, of course, this was a deeply Narnia-esque project. Because, let’s be honest, it was all about proselytizing. But the proselytizing wasn’t aimed at other people’s kid’s, only at my own. And it was about telling my children where they came from, not telling them where I thought they should go in life. I wanted to write a sort of family origin myth, one that went to the heart of what I hope my children will value in their own complex, multiethnic, but emphatically Jewish heritage. And if there was any preaching going on, then it had a lot less in common with C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics than with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride – a book that uses humor, romance and magic to drive home the underlying moral of “Hey, would it kill you to turn off the TV and listen to your grandfather’s stories once in a while?”
Those stories are what it’s really about for me. Stories of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles that were passed on around kitchen tables over three generations, that made me and my husband who we are, and that will continue to shape our children long after we ourselves are gone. Building fantasy out of those stories is not about resurrecting a mythical lost medieval world in which my children can escape from the complexity and moral ambiguity of real life, but about shedding the transformational light of fantasy on this world: the one my children will build their future in. And recasting our family’s story as fantasy is the best way I’ve found to share my own questions about faith, politics, ethnicity, and what it means to be Jewish in America with my children.
I say questions instead of answers because, as every parent knows, we cannot force our children to accept our answers in life. We can only share our questions with them. We do this in the hope that they will find better and wiser answers than we can yet imagine. And one of the ways we do it is by telling them the story of where they come from.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is my attempt to do that. And if it’s wrapped up in a New York fairy tale, with a little romance, and a big dose of slapstick humor? Well … love, laughter, and fantasy are some of the best ways humans have of making sense of our world.
We don’t belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.
I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.
There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.
A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.
The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.
These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.
By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.
I still don’t know how the subject of Israel came up. I was at a party, in line at the bar, when the man in front of me turned and said, “You know, I have a solution to that whole problem in the Middle East.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, nor did I know which problem he was referring to, until he gave me a wary look and said, “Are you Jewish?”
“I am,” I said. Clearly this man doesn’t know Jews, I thought.
“I am, too,” said the bartender, “so be careful what you say.”
The man appeared a little abashed, a little excited. Two Jews!
“Well,” he said, “I’ve been listening to all the news about the violence and bombings and everything, and I was hearing something on the radio about how in the Great Plains they’re losing population every day, all the young people are leaving, and I thought: why don’t they just move Israel to the Dakotas?”
The bartender smiled. I smiled. I was in shock. Not just because the proposal was so offensive, or because this man had the gall to share it with us, but because something similar to it had been proposed 130 years ago, by Jews in Odessa. As pogroms intensified, many Eastern European Jews were heading east, to Palestine. But this Odessa group – Am Olam, they called themselves, meaning Eternal People – decided that Jews should head to America’s West, and become farmers. From 1880 to 1920, Jewish agricultural colonies were founded across this country, in Oregon, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey – and, yes, in North and South Dakota.
And, I’d written a novel about it.
I mentioned this last part nonchalantly. I didn’t get into politics or history or point out to him his obvious ignorance about “the situation” in Israel. I just took my beer and walked away. But I have to admit: this man got me thinking. What if the Am Olam farmers in America had succeeded? (Most wound up back in cities and towns.) What if there was a veritable Jewish state smack in the middle of our country and Jews there played every role, as we do in Israel? Farmer, mechanic, electrician, plumber, cook, rancher. Imagine. I was reminded of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – a similarly wild vision, of Jews taking refuge in Alaska. What if such a thing had come to pass in the lower 48? It’s not a proposal, but a re-envisioning, an expansion of my sometimes narrow assumptions about what Jews can be and do and mean in America today. This expansion has led me to question, and search. And guess what I found? There are Jewish kids learning to farm right now, in 2011, at the Jewish Farm School in upstate New York.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother recently. This is my paternal grandmother, the longest-lived of my four grandparents and the only one I came to know well. Her name was Rose – like so many women of her generation – and the name suited her personality: under her smooth exterior (held in place by corset and garters) there were thorns.
People use a lot of words to describe women like Rose. Hard. Cold. Judgmental. Even unloving. But – and it’s a big but – Rose was a mother, to four children. She has nine grandchildren now, most of us with advanced degrees, thriving in every corner of this country. How do we reconcile what we knew of her with what she gave us?
A couple weeks ago I visited a book group that had read my first novel, The Little Bride. The women were discussing my protagonist, Minna Losk, a Jewish orphan who travels to America in the 1880s as a mail-order bride. They were talking about how complicated she is – how along with being strong and compassionate she can also be stubborn and selfish. One woman said she forgave Minna all of it, because of what she’d been through. “She’s a survivor,” she said, and the other women nodded. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” the woman went on. “And my grandmother was not a nice woman.”
Immediately, others began to speak.
“My grandmother wasn’t nice, either.”
“Mine was very cold.”
“I never saw my grandmother smile.”
The table erupted in laughter. Then the women began talking about their grandmothers, and why they thought they’d been the way they were. They wondered about stories they’d heard – of immigration, or abuse, or miscarriages. And they wondered about stories that might have been kept a secret.
As they talked, I started wondering about Rose. Most of her stories had been about my grandfather’s history, or about her children. She hadn’t often talked about herself. What was her story, not the public version but the private one? What were her secrets? How had she become the woman I knew?
That conversation opened up a new door for me in my relationship with my grandmother. Fiction can do this, I think – it can lead us, however circuitously, to new compassion: for difficult characters, yes, but also for the people in our own lives. I feel closer, suddenly, to my Grandma Rose. I can hear her scolding me – “But I’m not even alive.” But I don’t think that matters one bit.
For a long time, I didn’t want to add historical context to the memoir, because I thought it would turn into a history book. But I kept thinking of a favorite professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who published memoir and narrative nonfiction books, one of them a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. He encouraged writers to set stories in context, but I resisted until a scholarly travel writer shared his opinion that the Gulf War was a “piss in the bucket” and that Saddam Hussein never had chemical weapons.
I knew then that I had to explain the larger narrative of history and the slim slice that I’d witnessed. I had published op-eds and travel essays about my adventures in South America and Israel during the first intifada and the Gulf War in the Stamford Advocate, my hometown newspaper in Connecticut. So I already knew that moment of history intimately. But I went on a rigorous fact-finding mission, reading dozens of books and articles and documents, fleshing out context spanning World War II through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was hard reading. Memories bubbling up in uncomfortable ways. But it was necessary for the book and, ultimately, healing for me, as I wrestled with the ghosts of my past.
I thought I was done with the book by the time I found my new agent. She told me that she didn’t want a little book deal. She wanted a Big Book Deal. So she made me write rewrite the synopsis, hoping that I could capture the essence of my story and style in 15-20 pages. I’d send her a new draft of the synopsis every few months, wait for her comments, then go back to the drawing board. She wanted more reflection. Dig, really dig.
After a year and a half of this, I asked if I was the slowest writer she’d ever worked with. She told me that she’d made an award-winning journalist work on a proposal for four years before she sold the book. I had done two Ironman triathlons, but somehow this seemed far more demanding of my endurance. And my mother’s. She asked if she could try to submit the book to independent and university presses. I wrote to the agent who said she hoped I’d find a home for the book. My mother became my agent.
She is a techie who could have been a cyber-detective, because she can dig up about anything on the internet. She put together a list of presses that publish memoir and mailed the proposal, using only a short synopsis similar to the one that appears on the published book instead of the opus I’d worked on for so long. Within three weeks, the editor-in-chief at the University of Nebraska Press read the proposal and asked for the whole memoir. She wrote a few weeks later to say that she enjoyed the book and wanted to send it out for peer review.
Both reviews asked for more reflection. I wrote a long response about how too much reflection could slow the pace and darken the tone. My editor suggested that I write a short letter, explaining how I could deepen the narrative. You want to make sure it comes through to the reader, she said. So I wrote a brief note about how I could revise the book. The editorial board approved it unanimously. I was encouraged. And terrified.
By now, I knew what the story meant, but how could I force the reader to agree, after hearing so many takes on the root of our troubles, and how could I do it without making it a heart-wrenching tale? It was delicate work, inserting a line here and a paragraph there, adding a chapter toward the beginning and expanding another at the end. The revisions were a success. The press officially accepted the book for publication, and later selected it as a promotional giveaway at BookExpo America this spring.
Black Elephants, already a bestselling title for my publisher, came out in October through the paperback imprint, Bison Books. Kirkus Reviews said it is “poetic,” “filled with idealism and adventure,” “a memorable read.” The Christian Science Monitor ran a reader recommendation in its print edition, calling the memoir “moving and thought-provoking.” Poets & Writers selected it as a New and Noteworthy Book. I signed books at my launch party at Idlewild Books and more after a talk the New York University Bookstore. Then I visited the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia to talk about Black Elephants with the Women of the World Book Club. A psychologist, who spent 18 months in Iraq helping soldiers, identified with my experiences and endorsed my approach to healing. Write, Pray, Swim, Bike, Run.
A friend met an aspiring agent who had worked in publishing and recommended me to her. She submitted the manuscript to an editor who handled first books with film potential. We waited and waited. Word never came. She wondered if I had any suggestions about where to send the book. I didn’t. Not even a clue. She soon bagged the agenting business and went to graduate school. I saw her a few years later, and she said she often thought of a line in my memoir when she runs. “Never quit on a hill.”
She wasn’t the first agent to see the book. A friend from the University of Pennsylvania had become a screenwriter with a strong review of his satirical film in The New York Times. He wrote novels, too, and kept trying to find an agent without success. Nobody reads books anymore, he said, so stop fussing over the manuscript and send it out. He suggested that I send it to a classmate who worked for a book packaging agency. I left my baby in her sister’s lobby and hoped.
Within days, she left a beautiful message about how she loved the story but had never sold anything like it before. The everyman, woman, and child memoir was still new, and only select agents took a risk on it. I typed up the message and saved it because her words of encouragement were precious to me. She recommended other agents–good agents, one at a time–but none of them took me on during this time when I was still trying to dig below the surface of the facts, still trying to find my voice as a writer, still waiting for my genre to find its legs. Every no meant that I had to make it better.
I dreamed of a big book advance while I was working long hours as a journalist, but I had no real urgency to publish the memoir until a steady freelance gig dried up just before the Iraq War was about to begin. I mass queried agents listed online at Publisher’s Marketplace and quickly found an agent who represented action and adventure novelists, as well as history and current affairs authors. She wrote two pages of advice about how to edit my memoir, mostly asking me to take out the reflection and stick to the action.
I spent months stripping away all of the reflective passages and sent back a lean, 175-page book of pure story with only a hint of what the story meant to me at the end. She didn’t take me on, and that summer I fell into deep despair. But by fall, a new strategy had begun. Publishing excerpts in literary magazines. An excerpt ran in the premiere print issue of Epiphany, a literary magazine originally affiliated with New York University, after my longtime mentor asked for a chapter of the memoir.
This seemed like a winning strategy, so I worked with a submission service for writers–I can’t stand paperwork–to send excerpts and poems to literary magazines. Several chapters appeared in Lumina, Permafrost, and North Dakota Quarterly–literary magazines affiliated with Sarah Lawrence College, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and University of North Dakota. Two were selected as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005, guest edited by Christopher Hitchens and Susan Orlean.
I didn’t know about the first honor for almost two years. My mother had encouraged me to write a cover letter to series editor Robert Atwan, and she mailed the brief letter and the Epiphany book with a red tab on my excerpt, “Litmus Test.” I adored The Best American Essays, but I thought it was such a long shot that I didn’t look for my name in the book when it came out that fall. Two years later, I discovered the excerpt on the list of Notable Essays in a Google search. I wrote to Epiphany to tell the founding editor about the honor, and he hired me as the nonfiction editor of the magazine.
I continued to work with the submissions service, giving my mother unopened mail from literary magazines. I asked to see acceptances only. After several essays and poems had been accepted, I applied to a dozen contests, including a few for full-length poetry collections. Months later, my mother opened a letter from Colorado State University. “This is a very nice letter,” she said. “You should read it.” My complete poetry manuscript had been selected as a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007.
By now, I was ready to try for an agent again, so I hired the submissions service to send letters to agents. Within weeks, I had an agent at a boutique firm specializing in nonfiction books about war, politics, the environment. He called the memoir a hybrid–part love story, part travel story, part war story. A challenge to sell because it didn’t fit neatly into marketing categories, but he was enthusiastic. He asked me to put together a proposal for editors, including a bio, a synopsis, a sample chapter, chapter summaries, and a marketing plan. He sent the proposal to a few editors. Silence all summer.
By fall, my mother couldn’t take it any more. Neither could a talented writer who’d read part of my book and thought it was a winner. He had just sold his first book, a travel memoir, and he encouraged me to try his agent. It was a risk, because I had to break my contract with my agent. But his agent was at a big, prestigious agency, and she had sold travel, war, and women’s memoirs. She read the proposal overnight and called in the morning. Passionate, excited, intense. It’s a hybrid, she said, but she liked a challenge.
Karol Nielsen’s memoir, Black Elephants, is now available.
The facts of my story were always clear but the meaning eluded me for years. I took creative writing courses with a gifted, generous man who asked essential questions: Who are the characters? What is the conflict? What are you saying? Now I am a memoir writing instructor at New York University, asking students the same questions. Straightforward but difficult questions when telling a true story.
I finished a draft of Black Elephants a few years after the Gulf War, hoping the story itself would show me the answers, but the facts alone weren’t enough. I had to dig deeper, wading through memory, waiting for hard-earned clarity. Even my own character was a mystery to me, until I understood how I was drawn to adventure like my mother’s father, a storyteller and pilot who flew men and cargo over the Himalayas, the camel’s hump, from India to China during World War II. I wanted big adventure like Bobby, action like a new recruit. A simple line that took almost a decade to articulate.
I don’t know an efficient way to become a writer. I only know that through writing you become a writer. For me, that meant writing nights, weekends, vacations while working full-time as a journalist, and then mornings once I became a freelance writer, editor, and writing instructor. I accumulated drafts of the memoir, rewriting long sections by hand, as well as hand-written drafts of a novel, a play, a screenplay, tiny Moleskine notebooks full of poems, and boxes full of leather and suede journals filled with daily musings. I also read poetry, memoir, and fiction by Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, and others who became exquisite models of storytelling and style.
Along the way, I turned the memoir inside out several times. The first draft was mostly backstory about working as a staff writer for the Buenos Aires Herald in post-“dirty war” Argentina and traveling solo through South America. I showed the manuscript to a mentor who had been in The Best American Short Stories. She said the story began when I met Aviv, an Israeli traveler dreaming about peace on the way to Machu Picchu. The central love story between Aviv and me, moving from Peru to New York to Israel during the Gulf War, was contained in a 70-page nonfiction novella at the end. It was an overwhelming, but accurate observation. So I began again, and again.
I shared the book with mentors, writers, friends, family, and almost anyone who asked, because it was easier to share the manuscript than fumble through words that always seemed to fall short. The book didn’t illuminate my emotional journey, only the surface facts, open for interpretation. There were many. I was better at developing scenes and images than talking about my messy, messy feelings. A terrible struggle, for me, because I was still confused by my own story. How had I gone out for a big adventure and fallen in love only to have everything fall apart during the Gulf War and its aftermath?
Traumatic experiences like war provoke so many emotions–some conscious, many unconscious, pulling at you–that it’s easier to leave them all out than pick the right ones. I couldn’t even sort through these feelings properly with a therapist. How could I do it as a writer? As I searched, my half-baked efforts at reflection only muddied the manuscript.
Karol Nielsen’s story will be continued on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, Tom Fields-Meyer wrote about reading and thinking about books and took a look at autism and God. He has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at an event to benefit my children’s summer camp. In the midst of a lovely discussion, the rabbi who runs the camp offered a question: “What’s your book’s Jewish message?”
I stammered and stumbled a bit before I came up with an answer. But afterwards, I kept thinking about the question. I tend to come up with much more articulate responses the next morning, on my jog, than on the spot. (That’s why I’m a writer and not, say, a White House spokesman.)
Following Ezra tells the story of raising our middle son for the decade from his autism diagnosis at age three through the day of his one-of-a-kind bar mitzvah. It’s loaded with Jewish content: there’s the awkward, hilarious conversation he had with a neighbor on the walk to synagogue one Shabbat; there’s the wonderful conversation when Ezra learned about the Eighth Commandment (the hard way); and of course there’s the last chapter, detailing the days surrounding my son’s bar mitzvah celebration.
But what’s the Jewish message?
In the book of Genesis, it says God created human beings in God’s image. That means we should treat every person with dignity, respect and honor—no matter their disability, no matter what they look like, no matter how many times they remind us when the next Pixar movie is premiering (a habit of Ezra’s that can be either endearing or annoying, depending on your perspective). That also means that encountering people who are different from us—from different backgrounds, different circumstances, or facing different challenges—gives us a insight into the many aspects of the divine.
My book begins with an epigraph, a single bracha, a traditional blessing. Jewish liturgy is full of blessings recited on various occasions. Most Jews are familiar with the blessings said over wine or before eating bread. One of my favorite pages in the Artscroll prayer book lists “Blessings of Praise and Gratitude,” the brachot that are reserved for life’s unusual encounters. There’s one for seeing lightning, and one for experiencing an earthquake. There’s a particular blessing to say when you see 600,000 people in once place. (How often do you get to use that one?)
In the midst of that list, the prayer book includes a blessing to say upon seeing a person who is different. The Talmud enumerates the various kinds of people included. It praises God, mishaneh habriyot—who “creates variety among living beings.”
Blessed is God for creating all kinds of people. What better words could introduce a story about raising a child with an unusual and fascinating mind?
And what better Jewish message could there be?
Every Saturday morning, I ask my son Ezra the same question. As our family prepares to head out for the walk to synagogue, I stop Ezra with five words before he gets to the door:
“Do you have your books?”
This sends him to his bedroom to fill his red backpack with a handful of volumes: the Pixarpedia, a detailed taxonomy of Pixar’s animated movies; a 600-plus page animal encyclopedia; and sometimes a canine almanac called The Dog Breed Bible.
It’s an unusual selection, but Ezra, who is 15, is a singular kid. High-functioning autism makes it difficult for him to sit in one place, whether that place is his math classroom, a restaurant booth, or the pews of our neighborhood shul. Since he was young, the one thing that could get Ezra to sit still was a book.
He’d take The Cat in the Hat on the school bus to ease the transition from school to home. He’d sit at the local pizza parlor, poring over Richard Scarry picture books. And in synagogue he always had his red backpack.
His teachers say that reading is among his significant deficits. At his special-needs school, Ezra takes a remedial reading class designed to improve comprehension and fluency. But that would surprise the people who know him from synagogue, the ones who would hardly recognize my son without his head buried in a book.
The truth is that he does struggle with long passages of writing—dry science textbooks, say, or young adult novels. But for what specialists call his “topics of interest”—principally animals and animated movies—Ezra has endless focus, and an uncanny ability to absorb and remember facts.
That’s what he’s often doing in shul while the rest of the minyan is paying attention to the Torah reading or that week’s sermon (or, occasionally, dozing).
Like many people with autism, Ezra tends to isolate himself, but in synagogue, the books connect him. People sitting nearby take notice, and he’ll show them what he’s reading. Or he’ll make his way to the lobby, where my wife and I sometimes find him sitting on the floor, sharing a book with a young child.
Transitions can be difficult for kids like Ezra, but having a book is a way to bring his world with him and make almost any place comfortable and secure. Having his books with him has helped make synagogue a second home for Ezra, and a happier place for the rest of the family.
Occasionally, we’re running late on a Saturday morning and rush out the door. Then, halfway to the synagogue, I realize we’ve forgotten the red backpack. That used to mean certain disaster. One of the delights of watching Ezra enter the teen years has been his increasing self awareness, his growing ability to handle the unexpected.
“You want me to go back and get your books?” I ask.
“No, that’s okay,” he says with a smile. “I’ll just think about them.”