Rivkah Writes…

May 3, 2009

The Opiate of Tears

Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 11:17 am

I’m a big weeper. In fact, I personify all the stereotypical expressions around crying. I “cry as if my heart would break,” “cry my heart out,” “sob uncontrollably,” etc. Ironically, though, the torrents are usually unleashed for the most seemingly banal of reasons. So I cracked “Titanic” jokes while walking calmly down the water-logged staircase on 9/11, and over the years, have applied such composed compassion to a catalogue of domestic shockers including one child’s benign tumor and another’s sexual assault, that my husband has accused me of not caring enough – or clearly, like him, I would be a basket case. Noted.

At any rate, I will sail through these personal challenges seemingly unscathed – and then disintegrate while watching their fictional counterparts. So I’ve sobbed for hours watching Clint Eastwood brokenheartedly pull the plug on his champion boxer-turned-vegetable, Hillary Swank, in “Million Dollar Baby,” or Demi Moore recapture an enchanted moment with her dead boyfriend, Patrick Swayze in “Ghost,” or Carrie Bradshaw’s haunted face post-wedding debacle in the “Sex and the City” movie.

For me, at least, there’s something at once elegiac and cathartic about surrendering to tears. And believe me, like any alcoholic, I’ve suffered for my weakness. Watch anything remotely sad at night and I will awake with the mother of all hangovers – exactly as though I’d spent the night before downing tequilas rather than trying to control my wracking sobs over – get this – someone else’s pain and misery. Once, on a flight from New York to London, I cried so hard over Judy Dench’s depiction of mental disintegration via Alzheimer’s in “Iris,” that upon arrival in London, I had to stop the taxi at least twice to throw up from the impact of headache and nausea that set in about the same time as Judy’s dementia.

So why does it happen, all this crying? Well, I can’t control it, but I understand it all too well. I’m so tightly wound, so controlled, so on top of the logistics of this multi-layered pastiche I call life, as a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch, writer, not to mention amateur therapist, coordinator of medical services, we-can-fix-it person extraordinaire, one-woman cheerleading squad; I try so hard to bring peace, harmony, health, and happiness into my little universe, that sometimes the flower-power-I-am-so-fine routine begins to crack at the seams. I’ll bravely attempt to stop the leaks with a little (OK, maybe not so little) therapeutic shopping, or a night out with friends, and it works…for a while. Until I sit down to watch that movie – and then all hell breaks loose. So when I weep, it’s not for poor Hillary, Demi, Carrie, or Judy although I feel for them, I do. Ultimately, these characters and their stories unleash the heartbreak I feel for my own soured expectations, disappointed dreams, and anguished self-awareness. They trigger my “what’s it all for?” moments of existential misery, when I feel that my whole life’s been wasted in striving for an elusive dream of beauty and fulfillment that exists in my own mind only…

Very sad. And yet, after an hour or two, I’ll do the Holly Hunter “Broadcast News” thing – stop crying and get back to living. I mean, I just have to. What would happen if I walked around all the time schlepping an existential albatross? I’d end up a DSM Axis I category – crazy (which, one might argue, would be a surrender of a different kind) – and of no earthly use to anyone. And that can’t happen. Not when everyone in my world looks to me to find the answer, to be the answer, the mother lode, the source, the oracle the – OK, I’ll stop now.

So yes, I know why I cry over fictional misery. Still, I’ve become wise to the dangers of abusing the opiate of tears. I avoid sad movies at night, and grimly surf the comedy channels on international flights. I tell myself “think laughter, think happy,” and then I’m safe. But sometimes, when it all gets too much, when I know a new pair of shoes just won’t cut it, I’ll find the right movie, down a Tylenol cocktail, grab a box of tissues, sit back, and prepare to enter the Valley of Emotion – vicariously, of course.

April 28, 2009

Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:53 pm

Caught between disbelief and wonder, many of us who saw Susan Boyle’s extraordinary performance on Britain’s Got Talent mentally recast her appearance to match her incredible voice. Because, as human beings, our minds aren’t equipped to deal with dissonance – elements that don’t “fit” our value system or embedded set of stereotypes. We want things to be of a piece – so we expect ordinary looking people to have ordinary abilities, and extraordinary looking people, to be extraordinary. The truth, though, is that beauty doesn’t guarantee genius. And, by the same token, genius such as Susan Boyle’s can exist in ordinary packages. Still, most people remain blissfully unaware of life’s delicious ironies, and in the wake of Susan’s performance, their unconscious processes have gone busily to work on the tabula rasa that is Ms. Boyle. As a result, much blogging, twittering, and references to Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, and God have been devoted to the Susan Boyle “Should She or Shouldn’t She?” makeover debate.

 

But has anyone noticed, amid the various back and forths, that we’re assuming a makeover would impact only us, Susan’s audience? That the only issue of importance is how we’d feel if Susan’s beautiful voice existed in a more becoming setting? When what we need to consider is that a makeover might have considerable psychological impact on Susan herself?

 

Think about it for a moment. Susan has spent her life in a small village in Scotland, working as a church volunteer and caring for her mother. Since her mother’s death, she has continued to live alone with her cat, Pebbles. By any standards, Susan’s life to date has been sheltered and she’s lived among people far less concerned with appearances than their American counterparts. Subject this woman now to cosmetic changes of even the most basic kind, and the consequences of suddenly rendering her visible, when she has been mostly invisible, added to the public attention generated by her newly discovered talent, and Susan may find herself bewildered, paralyzed and lost. The impact of transformative change on many people can render them self-aware and questioning about abilities they have previously taken for granted. The impact of transformative change for Susan could turn her effortless gift into a burden loaded with people’s expectations.

 

Writing in the nineteenth century, Charlotte Bronte also knew a thing or two about the dangers of transformation. In Villette,* she introduces us to Lucy Snowe, a young English governess who cannot risk articulating her emotional desires and needs because her social, physical and economic marginality make it unlikely that she will ever be able to find fulfillment; poor, plain, and destitute, she is considered at best, invisible at worst, ugly and unimportant. At the boarding house in France where she is employed, Lucy is compelled to accept a part in a play to be performed by students. At first reluctant to play her part, Lucy finds that once on stage, she transcends the mediocrity of her everyday self. As actress, she becomes another person, transforming her role and using it as a vehicle for expressing the person she cannot be, the feelings she cannot have, the desires she cannot accept. As with the prospect of a makeover for Susan Boyle, Lucy’s newly discovered talent suddenly renders her visible in a way she has never been before. Yet once the play is over, Lucy decides she will never act again. Why? According to the critic, Tony Tanner,** Lucy realizes that as an individual alone in the world, she can rely only on her self, and therefore recognizes the importance of knowing full well what that self represents, no matter how alien her surroundings or how inviting the new attentions of those that surround her. Consequently, Lucy struggles to keep the core of her personality intact, lest, as Tanner points out, by yielding to the role of actress, she shatters “into a multiplicity of discontinuous and unrelated partial selves which she might be unable to integrate.”

 

Lucy Snowe has much to teach Susan Boyle. Not about depriving herself of a makeover – we are, after all, in the twenty first, rather than the nineteenth century and no longer burdened by the kind of class system Lucy endured, a class system that would have made the governess feel her differentness no matter how famous she might become. No, Susan Boyle is supported by a network of family and friends who would all be cheering her on as she embellishes the setting that houses her magnificent voice. Nevertheless, the Lucy Snowe example suggests Susan’s most important tasks over the next few months – indeed, the tasks of every person in charge of molding Susan’s image at Britain’s Got Talent – are to keep the core of her personality intact, to maintain the integrity of her effortless gift, to ignore public expectations, and above all, to keep Susan transcendent, even as she is transformed.    

 

 

*Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

**Tanner, Tony. Introduction. Villette. By Charlotte Bronte. London, Penguin Books, 1985.

 

 

April 7, 2009

A Hole in My Logic

Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 3:04 am

What do my gums, a diabetic friend, and 16-year old Tanzanian girls have in common?  We all have – or in my case, had – something called a fistula. 

Speaking personally, I’ve always had a kind of sixth sense about language, especially since my professors taught me to deconstruct and demystify just about everything. Nevertheless, when my dentist informed me that the bump on the portion of gum above my front tooth was a fistula, deconstruction was the last thing on my mind. Instead, my thoughts ran more along the lines of: “What the hell’s a fistula? How do I get rid of it?” and of course the ever popular, “How much will it cost?” 

It turned out that the fistula,  a pus-filled boil, had developed above a front tooth on which I’d received root canal treatment. Some of the infection had remained in the root canal with no way to escape – hence the fistula. An oral surgeon cleaned out the area without having to redo the root canal  and that was the end of my problem.

The next time I heard the term, I was visiting family in England and had looked in on an old friend with advanced Diabetes. Given his condition, he had had a tube of sorts surgically inserted into his arm in preparation for possible dialysis. Complaining about the discomfort caused by the device, he referred to it as a “fistula.” I dismissed my perplexity, assuming that by some strange coincidence, tubes in the arm are to UK doctors what bumps on the gum are to their US counterparts.

The term came up yet again in February when I was reading an article in The New York Times* about young women in Tanzania. Pregnant at 16, these girls had lost their babies after prolonged labor which left them with a horrible internal wound called a fistula. The fistula rendered them incontinent and given their constant odor, they were shunned by family and friends. 

The recurrence of “fistula” in a context I found heart-wrenching finally spurred me to do some research. My findings were a perfect illustration of Occam’s razor – one explanation that fit each “fistula” situation: according to WebMD, a fistula is “a passage or hole that has formed between…two organs in your body.”

In other words, a fistula is a hole, and the hole in my logic was assuming it was just a name, when in fact like all words – even some names – it’s a descriptive term with contextual permutations. Which means a fistula is dental when it’s a pus-filled boil on your gum; arteriovenous when it’s a procedure  surgically joining an artery to a vein in preparation for dialysis; and vaginal when it forms in the walls of the vagina.

And the moral of the story is – never underestimate the power of words.

 

*After a Devastating Birth Injury, Hope. The New York Times, February 23, 2009.

April 6, 2009

Laid Off: Variations on a Theme

Filed under: On My Mind,Unemployment — rivkahwrites @ 3:06 am

Lately I’ve been wondering about the diverse uses of the word “laid” – not surprising, perhaps, considering I was recently laid off. But think about this for a moment; just how did the term “laid off” come to be used in the context of pink slips, recessions, and RIFs? And what’s the relationship between “laid off” and other expressions sharing the same verb form? You know, like being “laid up” if you’re sick, having a “lie in” when you don’t have to be up early for work (like yours truly), “lying in wait” to ambush an enemy, and, dating from the fifteenth century, about to have your “lying in” if you were ready to go into labor. (There’s also another, more colorful usage form – but this is a clean blog, so we’re not going there.)

Some of these expressions, like “laid up” and “lie in,” make intuitive sense – when you’re sick or sleeping late, you are literally lying down, and given your condition, passive, even defenceless. But other usage forms are completely counter-intuitive. Take “lie in wait,” for example. You may be in a state of complete stillness as you wait for your target – you may even be lying down. But you’re definitely neither passive nor defenceless; every nerve ending is tensed, poised, ready to spring into action. As for “lying in,” despite the defencelessness implied by the state of childbirth, you would actually labor to bring that child into the world,  so no passivity there either.

Which brings us to “laid off.” Clearly, whoever coined the term had the idea of passivity in mind. When you’re no longer “actively” employed, what else would you be but passive? But in my mind a passive connotation only makes sense if you let it. No one’s arguing with the fact that getting laid off robs you of your income, your dignity, your self-esteem – that it makes you want to hide under your covers.  But that’s hardly the response that will help land you a job – especially in today’s economy. So for me, getting laid off is more like lying in wait – I may not be actively employed, but I’m definitely in the game – tensed poised, and ready to spring into action.

April 5, 2009

Welcome

Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 8:50 am

Hello All and welcome to the “Rivkah Writes…” blog, a forum for my musings, mental meanderings, etc.  

I thought I’d start off by giving you a little history. I’ve always told myself I ought to write regularly – it’s a discipline most writers-in-waiting probably subject themselves to at one point or other. I found myself to be most prolific when I was in undergraduate English classes, writing continuous essays, response pieces, etc. But once I left college, what with taking care of family, going to work, and just living from day to day, those resolutions just seemed to settle guiltily at the back of my mind. Until last Wednesday. Last Wednesday, I became a recessionista (in other words, I was laid off).  After stumbling out of my manager’s office, locking myself into a bathroom stall and crying the rest of the address off the severance package envelope (yes – they didn’t leave me destitute, thankfully) I made two grief-sodden resolutions: First, I HAD to stop crying, and two, no more excuses – I HAD to start writing. Because this incident, this dismissal, this redundancy, call it what you will – was really a message – my neglected literary ambitions had finally been given a kick in the butt by an omniscient and omnipotent foot.  So once the initial shock wore off, I dried my eyes, squared my shoulders, and…that’s how this blog came to be.

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