Women is...: Expecting (from The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt)

Expecting (from The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt)

The mice have eaten the arms and necks off all my cashmere sweaters and I am just over it. I know they are using the cushy yarns to build nests for their babied, but can’t they do that somewhere else and with someone else’s cashmere sweaters? Tonight as I brushed my teeth at the kitchen sink, I heard scratching and looked up to see two tiny mice running along the molding over the sofa. When I came up to bed, I found one arm of my black sweater, chewed off as perfectly as a piece cut from a dress pattern, lying on the floor next to the nightstand. I can’t take it. We’ve got to get a cat, or maybe two cats.

Or maybe I should call Terminix? I hate the thought of the little beasts gnawing on poison and then crawling somewhere to die, bloated with thirst. But at eight weeks pregnant and counting, I’ve got my own nest to feather, and mice droppings all over the kitchen counter just won’t do.

How Darwinian.

On the way up to this mice infested paradise, S. and I got into an argument. We were walking into Saul’s, the local Jewish deli, and S. said he didn’t feel comfortable because there aren’t ever any other black people at Saul’s and the pictures on the walls remind him of Zionism and all the horrible things being done to Palestinians in its name. Because I’ve got a little Jewish in my African-American, or a little African-American in my Jewish, depending on the day, I know what he means. But I feel very at home in Saul’s, and I feel this crazy, irrational, out-of-control desire to protect Jews and Judaism from people’s negative perceptions, whether they have some basis or not.

I launched into a tirade about how the Israeli government is as far from many of the Israeli people as the Bush government is from many Americans. I pointed out the long, liberal tradition of American Jews. I made analogies to the knee-jerk assumptions people make about being African-Americans. S. tried to get a word in and have a conversation rather than a debate, but I had already hoisted my ivy-league machine-gun mind onto my shoulder and begun the assault. After a few rounds, my voice was tight and accusatory. S. withdrew from the conversation completely.

Taking a breath, I had a flash of the baby and how arguments like this might frighten him, if they didn’t already. I thought about something S. and I have talked a lot about: ceasing argument in our relationship forever and prioritizing peace between us over whatever issue our intellects have gotten hooked on. I never want ideology or “being right” to take precedence over loving one another and being a family. There’s just too much to lose, S. for starters. My baby’s mental health is another important something that comes to mind. He’ll never be able to handle being a second black, white, and Jewish Buddhist if his parents can’t keep it together.

I think that underneath the defensiveness is guilt. I feel guilty about what is happening in occupied territories. I feel guilty that so many Jews have been able to assimilate and become successful while so many from other marginalized populations have not. I feel guilty that I can sit in a restaurant and feel comfortable while at the same time, someone I love feels awkward and unwelcome.

But I think feeling guilty is just a way out of taking responsibility. As long as I feel guilty I can pretend that I am actually doing something about what is going on – I am feeling guilty – when in fact I am doing next to nothing to directly impact the peace process, or to change the culture of Saul’s. The guilt-induced tearing at my psyche also makes me feel as if I, too, am suffering alongside the ones being wounded. I, too, am a victim of the whole rotten mess. Which is true, but also puts the responsibility for fixing the whole mess where, exactly?

Before we went to bed last night, we talked about names. I’ve been calling the baby Milarepa after a Buddhist ascetic who tames both human beings and animals by singing to them.

I wish we had a cat to tame these mice.

Maybe we should name the cat Milarepa.

June 5th, 2004

Went to my friend Trajal’s dance performance downtown tonight, a piece inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’s book Less Than Zero, all about the deep insecurity that fashion often masks. As someone who has never met a Prada skirt she didn’t like, I found it very insightful. Afterward, a bunch of us went to dinner and I asked people to come up with names. The response to Milarepa was lukewarm, but people liked Tenzin, which I’ve been throwing around for the last few weeks.

“Tenzin Walker,” our playwright friend Brooke said. “That’s strong.” Trajal took to it right away, and started to include Tenzin in all our future plans. “Well, when Tenzin is born, we’ll have to have a party,” and “I can’t wait to go to Paris with Tenzin.”

Paris with Tenzin!

Yesterday on the phone, I asked Trajal if he liked his name, or if having to constantly spell it for people drove him crazy. He said he didn’t always, but that for most of his life he has loved his name and can’t imagine being called anything else. I can’t imagine it either. Trajal is so sui generic, so unique, that I can’t help crediting his name with inspiring at least some of the freedom he’s claimed for himself. I don’t think he could have been the complete iconoclast that he is if his name was John.

Or maybe he could, and I am just looking for justification to name the baby something that isn’t in the Bible. Last week I had lunch with my editor, who has worked on tons of Buddhist books, and she said that the American kids with Tibetan names all want to be names Diane and Michelle. That have me pause but then I thought, don’t all American kids want to be names Diane or Michelle?

Anyway, tonight I felt like the belle of the ball. Even though it was Trajal’s night, being pregnant makes every night my night. Not long ago I heard Chritiane Northrup speaking about yin wisdom, and how the egg waiting for the sperm is full of it. The egg just calls out the sperm and then waits, knowing the whole school is just going to come calling. I feel like that. For the first time in my life, being is effortless. My job is to sit and glow. All I have to do is wait and the whole world, the whole big life experience, is going to come and land right at my feet.

Tenzin Walker!

September 23, 2004

Last night I told everyone I was thinking about naming the baby Tenzin. My stepmother looked up from her plate and said, “Tenzin? What kind of a name is that?” Then my father said that no matter what I named him, he was going to exercise his right as a grandfather to call him whatever he wanted, which was Chaim. I told them that Tenzin is the Dalai Lama’s name and that I couldn’t think of anyone more inspiring to be named after. And then my stepmother said, “Isn’t there anyone in the family you could name him after?” And my father said, “Yeah Rebec, what about Samuel? David? Moishe?”

I felt like Judas.

Before we arrived at the question of what to name the first biological grandchild of our clan, we focused our collective energy on whether or not my sister should take a role on a reality show. My brother and I were vehemently opposed and got so outrageously vocal about the whole thing, with my father chiming in from the sidelines with a “legal perspective” and my stepmother picking at her miso cod and trying not to get involved, that my sister finally had no choice but to accuse us of ruining her life. She stormed out of the room as I yelled, “We are only telling you this because we love you,” to which everyone nodded approvingly and my father said, “That’s right, Rebec,” following which my sister slammed her bedroom door.

It was my first dinner with the fam since being home, the fam being the Jewish half of my family, and home being their apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My father got a huge kick out of watching me eat two California rolls, one filet mignon Yakitori, a giant salad, an order of Agadashi tofu, two bowls of miso soup, and an entire order of steamed vegetable dumplings. He kept beaming and saying things like, “So, you’re eating for two, my Rebecca? Eat plenty for my grandson in there, the little schutsky,” and asking if I wanted the rest of his chicken lo mein.

September 25, 3004

We went to Ronnie and Tom’s to break the fast for Yom Kippur. Jason, Ronnie’s black, white, and Jewish son with whom I used to watch Love Boat and Fantasy Island sprawled on his mom’s bed, was there with his new girlfriend. She’s Cuban, but has never been to Cuba. Of course this possibility didn’t occur to me until after I had talked about how beautiful the island was and how the people are so incredible. The blank look on her face tipped me off. Then I started obsessing about how her family must have lost everything in the Revolution and they probably hated Fidel or at least have serious legitimate gripes and here I come, a spoiled American, talking about it like just another place I visited and added to my places-where-I-have-gone-and-now-have-an-opinion-about list. Disgusting.

The whole name thing came up again. Ronnie said, “Tenzin? No, I don’t like that so much.” Then my stepmother said, “What are the kids at school going to call him?” and my brother said, “Ten.” My father threw his hands up and said, “I like Chaim,” and I said, “Dad, we talked about this,” which we had, earlier in the day. I told him that I would not have anyone, including his grandfather, subjecting my child to even the merest hint of identity confusion. I said, “What if Grandma insisted on calling me Susan?” He paused and said, “You’re right, I would have told her that your name was Rebecca. But how is he going to get a job with a name like Tenzin? You know,” he said seriously, “there is a group of women with names like Shanequa speaking publicly about how their names have kept them from succeeding in the work place. They’re all changing their names to Mary.”

I told him that Tenzin was a perfectly respectable name, and part of a tradition at least 2,500 years old.

Then I asked him how many jobs he thought Chaim would get, and we both burst into laughter.

October 5, 2004

Talked for a long time last night with S. Seemingly out of nowhere I suggested we name the baby Jonah, or maybe David. S. kind of went through the roof. Um, hello? We’re Buddhist and, more than that, we made a decision. Please don’t tell me your ambivalence is stirred up again.

But it’s not ambivalence, it’s guilt. I feel like I am letting the clan down. Even more than that, I worry that if the baby has a name that doesn’t resonate with my family’s biblical template, they may not bond with him. In this crazy world, my baby is going to need grandparents. Isn’t it my responsibility as a mother to make sure the seeds for these important relationships are planted?

I also want him to relate to his Jewish roots, to know what it means to be a part of this crazy tribe of people who mix love and arguing like chocolate syrup and milk, who use Yiddish proverbs as terms of endearment, and who manage to find fabulous YSL sandals in the mountains of lame shoes at the Barney’s Warehouse Sale. I want him to know that his grandfather believed in justice in the old-fashioned, Jewish lefty way, and that even though he’s a Buddhist, he’s related to one the most revered rebbes in Judaism.

Maybe guilt is the mechanism that holds us all together and keeps us from completely spinning out into non-Jewhood. I heard somewhere that human beings, in terms of the way we organize ourselves, most resemble pack animals. As in wolves, dogs, wildebeest. We want everyone in our pack to smell the same. If they don’t, we’re not sure they’re really one of us, and if they’re not one of us, how can we trust them?

Biblical name=Smelling the same
Smelling the same=Trust

Biblical name=Survival.


November 29, 2004

I am starting to think that giving a baby a Tibetan name isn’t a betrayal of family so much as it is a sign of maturation.

S. and I were flipping through a magazine, talking about how many people are stunted in their development, hovering in an adolescent state well into their fifties and sixties, even until death. He defined adolescent as being overly concerned with the acceptance of peers, and fearful of rejection or confrontation with the adult world.

Which made me thing of George Costanza on Seinfeld, the Jewish guy masquerading as Italian who still lives with his parents, and of the stereotypical Jewish man still unhealthily meshed with his mother. I think I can safely say that guilt is the mechanism by which he remains ensnared. Who can stand the emotional blowback that comes with breaking away?

If guilt keeps up from moving forward and acting on our beliefs and aspirations, it certainly follows that not acting on our beliefs and aspirations can keep us in a state of arrested development. If we aren’t diligent in our efforts to mature, at some point cutting the cord of familial expectation, we become infantilized by it.

That seems pretty clear.

Now every time I feel guilty about the baby’s name, I think about George Costanza. Even though he’s not Jewish, the image still works.

December 23, 2004

Um, can I ask one small but very relevant question? Why the hell doesn’t anyone tell you how much it’s going to hurt? Oy f-ing vey. Here I thought I was going to have this natural birth, with my beloved midwife and her fabulous assistant. I thought if the pain got too bad I would hop into the birthing pool, and because I love to swim and take baths, it would somehow relax me and ease the pain.

The only thing that could ease the pain was an epidural, and if I do this again, which at the moment I cannot imagine, I will demand one after the first contraction, if not before.

The whole thing was a miracle, but more on that later. At the moment I must document my newfound respect for every human being who has given birth, and I completely retract my judgment of every woman who has had or will have a scheduled C-section. I mean really, maybe I just have a low threshold for pain, but I don’t think so. It is outrageous. I remember screaming, somewhere in between the toilet, the birthing pool, the bed, and the shower, that I couldn’t believe every person on this earth got here this way. It just doesn’t seem possible.

But it is and now, 30 hours after it all began, I have this little baby boy who is the most vulnerable, unbelievably precious thing I have ever seen.

I honestly don’t know if I can bear it. The joy. The pain. The responsibility.

His name is Tenzin Walker.