Issue 3 - Summer 2006 - The Magic Issue
THE 31st JEW OF DOVER
They gave my mother three months to live. They gave my baby a question mark. I located God, and for one miraculous year, it was me
BY LISA CRYSTAL CARVER
The hallmarks of sanity shift from generation to generation. Crazy people throughout time, though, have always seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: that they are God. I have a theory — maybe just to make myself feel better about what happened to me one dark year in the final days of the twentieth century — that decent people will be crushed at least once in their lives under the awareness of all the pain in the world. And when you’re completely flat and squashed and not looking so good, you’ll get your reward. In my case, the prize was a kind of glorious insanity. I was allowed to rise up and fluff out (temporarily) into a splendorous God.
Nineteen ninety-seven happened when I was 28, a prodigal daughter and prodigal mother in one, gone back to my hometown of Dover, New Hampshire, to nurse my sickly baby back to health and to ease my mother into death. My son was born with a genetic deletion; his intestinal woes stumped the doctors. My mother’s cancer was terminal, but she was sure we would find a way out of it if only I’d help her. In both cases, I seemed to be operating against their wills. My baby was wont to slip away, turning his head from the mushy food I offered him, while my mother demanded health food and new, firmer pillows and radical treatments in Boston. The cancer had already taken over most of her organs; still she clung with ferocity to and jealousy for an imagined future.
My day was filled with mundane and futile tasks — terrible therapies and cleaning things with pus on them and constantly washing my hands and cooking meals often thrown back up or not touched at all. The pace of this life was shockingly different from the previous ten years, which I’d spent transcontinentally, under the stage name Lisa Suckdog, taking off my clothes in nightclubs for my homemade rock operas, interviewing famous people for my magazine, Rollerderby, and generally being a mildly famous person, at least in some circles. In those days, this did not mean worrying about the starving people in Africa at all. And it most certainly did not mean worrying about two starving people in my own living room.
Before I came home to Dover, I had been living in Denver with my former boyfriend and my son’s father, an infamous prankster named Boyd Rice. Boyd possessed a very simple value system: did something or someone amuse or annoy him? If it was the former, he let it in. So when Wolf and I no longer amused Boyd, he kicked us out. I had called my mother from a payphone, Wolf balanced on my hip, to cry about it and, I guess, to see if she would take care of me. She interrupted to say she had cancer. I replied, stupidly, “What does that mean?”
They gave my mother three months to live, and they gave my baby a question mark. My life became about one thing only: pain. Trying to alleviate it and failing, and trying to figure out how it could exist, and why. There would be tears streaming out of both my baby’s and my mother’s eyes until they’d exhaust themselves into a stupor or actual sleep, but I would remain alert, thinking that if I didn’t keep a lookout for the answer, it might get away. There was no one to relieve me of my sentinel duties. My father had left my mother twenty years earlier, and in those twenty years, she’d made no new marriage, no other children, no friends. And I didn’t know anyone in Dover anymore. I wouldn’t have known what to do with or what to say to someone if I had.
Every day at dawn I had a few free minutes. I used them to read Nietzsche, and then for the rest of the day I’d move through my dull yet chaotic caretaking in an ecstatic daze, thinking about what I’d read. The night was punctuated by my little family’s coughs and moans and the beeping of their various machines. Pillows needing to be adjusted, medicines administered, lines checked. Every night was as busy — and as deathly slow — as the day.
I was listening all the time. I listened to doctors who wanted to detail the failings of my son’s intestines and the failings of my mother’s entire body. I listened to my mother, whose cancer had spread to her brain and made her unusually loquacious. She accused me of plotting to murder her, and yet entrusted me with bizarre, secret tasks: to take a certain picture using the camera in my eye, say, or to find “the key” under the crushed ice at the corner store. If I questioned the logic of any of these requests, she took it as further evidence of my murder plot and became even more agitated. So I faked along.
In the Bible, God instructed his favorites to undertake inexplicable and impossible missions. I hadn’t believed in God, but that was no reason not to believe in God now. (“I believe there is no God,” I wrote in my journal at the time, “and he is everywhere.”) In time I started hallucinating. Not exactly seeing things that weren’t there, but just having a relationship with death and the past and God and, um, a streaming being-ness. Actually, it wasn’t really a relationship — it was more that I was noticing clues, almost catching tendrils of holiness. I was seeing signs. Like the lifting up of the wind — I took it as a sign that I could feel something as commonplace as the weather.
You get the idea, being around suffering people, that if you take on a piece of their pain, just eat it up yourself, there will be less for them. But there was so much pain; and there were two of them, and they were unrelenting in their complaining and their need, and as I ran from one to the other something just broke in me and I soared up out of the pain into a tremendous, glowing happiness. No, it wasn’t happiness. I did not have a word for what it was, which was one reason I stopped talking.
The awkward pauses that made up conversations with faraway friends — party girls, actors, musicians — grew longer and longer until finally the phone stopped ringing completely. No one wanted to hear about bedsores and G-tubes, and even more, no one wanted to hear about a whispering God. As far as I knew, I had nothing in common with a single person on earth.
One night a week, my father would take my son, and sleep (brought on by an even larger dose of morphine than usual) would take my mother. Then a wiry roofer would come over and take his belt out of his belt loops and make pretty, red crisscross welts all over my thighs. When he did that, I ceased to exist. Only the arc of the belt mattered. It made me think things were evening out in the universe. If I experienced pain, my mom and Wolf must surely be experiencing a moment of relief. Or perhaps my motivation had less to do with cosmic altruism and more with being exhausted by the responsibilities that came with being as healthy as a horse. I was the only one never allowed to groan, the only one not getting morphine.
The roofer didn’t seem to find it strange that I never talked about what we did, or about anything, in fact, and I was grateful to not seem strange to someone. Once in a while he told me what to eat (before he was a roofer he was a cook, and had definite ideas about food and its preparation) and what to wear, in wonderfully economical language: “Don’t ever reheat rice. Throw out your unused portions.” I enjoyed being successful at something, even if it was just throwing out a half-cup of rice. We never went out on a date, and then one night we did. The roofer became jealous when I talked a bit to a male acquaintance we had run into. He brooded, then took his anger out on the clerk who sold him cigarettes, calling him an idiot and flinging coins at him. To me, it seemed inexcusably inferior to the way I took my anger out — which was on myself. So I broke up with him. And then I was really alone on Friday nights, still a living being among dying ones.
My mother had no savings, no retirement account, no will. And I had no time to write, which was how I’d been paying the bills. I applied for welfare and felt disgraced.
“What a man is,” Nietzsche claims, “begins to betray itself when he stops showing what he can do. Talent is a hiding place.” Stripped of my talents (for writing; for fast living), what I was was a nebulous ball of humiliation and duty. Identity was a luxury I couldn’t afford anymore. I try to remember — now that I’m sane again — what it was like watching my self leave me.
Unable to show — or be — what I could do, my “I”-ness came out naked for the first time. It was a lot smaller than I would have guessed. (I would have guessed it was about the size and the appearance of me.) I’d be rushing somewhere, overwhelmed, and suddenly it — I, my I-ness —would dart down the street ahead of me, turn corners playfully, rise up into the sky. Sometimes it would take the form of a real, floating feather or of smoke, but only in order to make sense to me. It — I — wasn’t really a feather; that was a symbol, something the old me could comprehend. It was all whispers, hints, clues. Sometimes it — I — would show me that time does not exist, or would take me back in time to see that I was the same as dead girls; they were as alive then as I am now.
It also occurred to me that maybe it was God … and then it occurred to me that maybe I was God. I mean, we’d all like to think it, but it never turns out to be so. I shrugged and told myself I was just lucky — though it seemed it might get to be a burden. Luck always is in the end, isn’t it?
I was crazy, yeah. One day I took myself to the beach and my heart was so fiery that if I had waded out into the sea, instead of getting quenched, it would have set the entire surface of the water ablaze, for miles and miles.
Wolf kept getting pneumonia. A swallow study showed that the culprit was the little bits of food I’d been giving him. Though his primary nutrition was formula poured through a tube inserted directly into his stomach, I’d been letting him lick at spoonfuls of whatever I was eating. A speech pathologist had said the tastes would stimulate his mouth and tongue, and maybe help him to start talking. But now permanent damage had been done to his lungs. So I stopped sharing, and he would mournfully follow the fork from my plate to my mouth with his eyes. I began eating less, and then I barely ate at all. One day someone came to the door and I was too weak to get up to answer it.
I ended up in the hospital with exhaustion and dehydration. When I got out a few days later, my mother was worse but my boy was better. Soon after, he was well enough to leave with sitters or to simply enjoy playing with. I persuaded my mother to accept help from a hospice and I became distracted by life — I joined a gym, forced myself to make friends and go out with them, and began to write again.
And, predictably I guess, I could no longer remember or define what it was I’d been chasing in the previous months. The sentinel took a nap, and now all the clues were gone (showing themselves to someone more worthy, no doubt). I understood that I was not the Messiah. But I still couldn’t remember quite who I was — how I would answer somebody, how I would react. I was flown to Sweden to help open a new nightclub. When I expressed my anxiety over the gig on the phone, the Swedish promoter said, “Just be Lisa Suckdog!” So I went, and I danced in my ridiculous way and I flirted with everyone and I threw my head back and laughed and laughed. I hurled my glass at the wall when I was done with my drink, like a gregarious Russian. When I was flown to Canada to give my opinions about American culture on TV there, I spoke gaspingly about soap operas and animal prints and I commented on my interviewer’s chest hair and got his assistant to get me a pair of scissors so I could groom him. I made everyone uncomfortable and I made everyone laugh and feel young. But I felt nothing. These were the things Lisa Suckdog did, but they no longer made any sense to me. I was operating someone else’s body, someone else’s laugh.
As I didn’t seem to know how to think or live like myself anymore, I was open to suggestion. And then I reasoned that maybe I’d imagined God so doggedly because I didn’t have God — no one had ever showed me how. I decided I wanted to give my son some God — an inoculation, if nothing else. I’d never been religious (except for temporarily Protestant during visits to my grandmother as a child), but now I thought: Why not? I visited Dover’s many churches, but the priests and ministers made me feel flawed beyond anything they could repair or comprehend, much less like. And just then, I wanted to be liked.
Then I went to the one synagogue in town and I felt at home. In the secular world, I’d always been drawn to Jews — the downward slope of their faces, the downward slope of their humor. I appreciated how when I was a cute predator at midnight in bars and clubs around the world, Jews alone would consistently turn me down, and then later come find me and express regret, and later express regret about the manner in which they expressed regret. Jews seem to me hyper-aware; always registering a situation; understanding its depths. I never noticed a situation in my life. I always said yes. Your nos were erotic to me.
The rabbi was a young, overweight, loud-laughing, peace-emanating, obviously gay man with heavy silver rings and esoteric symbols hanging from a leather string looped around his big neck. He once leaned out of his Cadillac to say to my friend’s eighty-year-old Catholic mother (he knew her from interfaith meetings), who was waiting on the sidewalk for her husband to pull the car around: “Working the corner, Phyllis?” Out of all of Dover’s religious leaders, he alone told me it wasn’t a problem that I don’t believe in God, and that in fact sometimes he doesn’t either! I thought better than to tell him that, until recently, I was God.
My first night at temple happened to be Yom Kippur, so all the Jews in Dover were there. I counted thirty. Out of a population of thirty thousand. Most one-in-a-thousands skulk solitarily. The Dover Jews banded together, and I wished I could, too. I’d never tried to be part of an organization before. Few in my generation do. We don’t dare fully believe in any system of identity or even in belief itself — why bother when we’re sure it will soon be snatched from us? I try to be sincere, to be where my body is, but I fail. I’ll always be half what I’m doing and half watching what I’m doing and laughing at it. I wonder if the ability to join and the ability to undividedly be something aren’t like math or language skills; there’s a few-year window of learning opportunity in the child’s developing brain, and then it gradually closes. I could attend temple until the cows come home, stop gossiping, not drive on Saturdays, and learn Hebrew; I could practice and love Judaism, yet I would never really be a part of it, or of any community. But my son could. And then someday, when his mother is dying, maybe he won’t feel as lonely and all alone as I did.
And so I stopped driving on Saturdays. I started learning Hebrew. And I realized — and this came in handy — that I had had more practice with rules than I had believed. Not only with the roofer, but with every man I’d been drawn to. I suspect I’m not the only leisure-time-privileged, existential, progressive, third-world-aware-but-first-world-living, intellectual child of hippie-ish, self-finding swingers who has gone through this: we don’t want to be controlled at all, and we never were controlled … and something is missing. Freedom is hard. It’s unnatural always being solely responsible for what to think and be. We get tired, we want to rest for a bit on some external authority, but we have to sneak it in under our own radar. We semi-join a semi-cult or dabble in weird relationships or some sub-sub-subculture full of prescriptions. We can’t stand freedom for too long. The only difference between how I was escaping it now and the way I operated in the Lisa Suckdog days was that religion isn’t cool. Maybe because it’s more aware of what it is than are subcultures, most of which have the veneer of anti-authoritarianism, there to trick us into thinking we’re not submitting to control.
Rabbi Lev’s Judaism controlled everything on the surface, but didn’t feel like it forced itself on anything beneath the surface. Rabbi Lev never tried to guide my thoughts, only my actions. Rabbi Lev had faith that if I went through the motions, buying the right brand of crackers, doing the right thing with candles, belief would follow on its own. And I had faith in his faith. I gave up choice by choice. I ate what the book said, lit the candles everyone else did. It felt exciting and dangerous. Having limitless choice is highly overrated — all that probing of self and mood! I’ve always loved that Albert Einstein owned six identical suits so that he never had to think about what to wear. Keeping kosher, observing Sabbath — for me, these were ways to stop questions about daily existence from constantly interrupting that existence.
After Shabbat service, those of us who hadn’t had enough God would trail down into the basement to snack and shoot the breeze. In the basement, Rabbi Lev would go wild, and he said some shocking things! In the old days, he said, some Jewish mystical sects were all about sex and drugs and ecstatic states. They had to line the synagogue walls with rubber, Lev yowled, because people were getting so excited they were putting holes in the regular walls with their heads!
I took a class every Wednesday on Jewish mysticism. Hundreds of years ago, a guy would disappear into a cave for days or weeks, perhaps with some mushrooms, then come out and say stuff and people listened. They were considered wise men! Boy, was I born in the wrong era.
Mystical sorts often say things like: don’t categorize your thinking. Stop naming, just notice. When you start naming, judging, evaluating an experience or person, that detaches you from God, from connectedness, from the mess that is life proper. Lev said hell was not a place to go to after you died — it was here on earth right now. It was whenever you were not connected to your fellow human beings, when you did not feel responsible to them, did not feel that your actions had an effect on them.
Judaism, Lev said, was the religion of questions, not answers. He liked to be argued with. When he said people are no different today than they ever were, I said but our situation is different; a community only exists when you have to go through the annoying stuff, too, and now we don’t have to do that. Technology, our main means of communication, can be shut off, whereas a neighbor knocking on your door must be seen. He said, “That we’re not connected is the story we tell ourselves. In fact, we are just as connected today as we were three thousand years ago. If you put your grandmother in a nursing home and don’t visit or call, that is your relationship. You have not, as you think, ended the relationship. You created this form for your relationship. If someone’s e-mail annoys you and you don’t reply, that is sending a message.”
That thought changed me. I was still divided from the group and from myself, but dividedly was simply the manner in which I did engage in the community. And having two concurrent inner half-lives or half-selves was a whole life, was a whole self. I could stop trying to merge them or pick one to destroy so the other could flourish, and just go about my business. I could stop waiting to live.
Perhaps Nietzsche’s most famous aphorism is “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In fact, when 1997 failed to kill me, it left me feeling radically weaker in some ways. I’d lost confidence in my confidence about my knowledge of the world. I lost the blindness — the twirling, vibrant guiltlessness, the sexy irresponsibility, of Lisa Suckdog. I used to be full of self — there was no rest of the world in my heart. I went from having a persona that meant everything, that gave me money and travel and lovers, to having no persona at all. Once the two people who interrupted my life to need me no longer needed me so much, I was left with no self and no world, and I turned to religion to tell me what to do with my limbs, with my minutes, with my thoughts. I was borrowing a self. At first I could fit inside it, but as I talked with Lev — and maybe because he seemed so cosmically reasonable to me — and attempted to understand the ideas I was trying out, I realized they weren’t exactly my ideas, and that I, because I could, because I was now able, had to go look for the ideas that would be mine.
I stopped my conversion at the very last minute. The catalyst was an argument with Lev about women not being able to be rabbis. He said it was because women are so “pure” and already intrinsically connected to God. But I was already wrestling with other questions and doubts. And then my mother died and Wolf went into preschool and life slowly started filling in the holes in me. I never went back to temple. I let slip away my one chance at being a part of something larger than myself. But I was no longer exiled from myself, from my actions. By never telling me what to think (only telling me what he thought, and letting me find my own way), Rabbi Lev was the one man who actually affected how I think. He brought me out of hell. And perhaps one reason I left him, left Judaism, was because I felt thankfulness, which I had never felt before and didn’t entirely recognize. Listening to him, I felt I was on fire. Not in the ecstatic way I felt when I was crazy: I was burning with thanks.
I went (halfway) back to being whore-y and occasionally knocking off a bottle of rum and laughing more than is right, but with my obsession about myself and my place on this earth quieted, I’ve been noticing all this extra time and brain-space to actually listen to other people and understand them, something I’d usually done before only to further look for myself. I’d say my soul is all right. Finally being able to give up feeling bad about being divided allowed me to stop being consumed by it, and to, once in a while, sink into pure, uncompartmentalized life. Rabbi Lev may have lost a prospective convert, Dover’s 31st Jew, but all the time he poured into me was not wasted. With me, he brought the whole world one tiny inch closer to his mission: peace and (slightly hiccupy) harmony. &