A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Genie Zeiger was a longtime contributor to The Sun who lived in Shelburne, Massachusetts. She died in 2009.
Why is there such a vast self-help industry in this country? Why do all these selves need help? They have been deprived of something by our psychological culture. They have been deprived of the sense that there is something else in life, some purpose that has come with them into the world.
I readily confess: I do not relish aging. As I close in on the age of sixty, I can’t understand how life’s waters, pure and rushing, have so mysteriously carried me here; how the moon keeps on with its rhythms and the sun rises and falls and the days pass faster and faster as I use up my allotment of breaths and move toward death.
Dad never believed in heaven. In fact, he was an agnostic until the age of seventy, when he called me to announce that, unlike all the other old people in his Florida retirement condo who were frightened to die and turning to religion, he was now an atheist. It was one of the few times in fifty years that he’d told me anything personal about himself. Amused and grateful, I said, “Good for you, Dad. Good for you.”
Middle-aged people shrink, crease, fade, and, if they’re lucky, slowly lose the desire to be noticed, the way we once lost our childhood taste for Necco Wafers or Pez. My desire to be seen is gradually being replaced by the desire to see: the faces of those I love, the cardinal in the bush, the socks of the woman with MS who swims at the Y.
Back then, we carried brown paper supermarket bags filled with trash down the dark apartment-house steps to the incinerator, pulled a handle, dumped the bag onto a metal lip, and let go.
Michael and I had a daughter, two years old, and I was pregnant with our second child. I was supposed to be happy, but I didn’t like my husband to touch me; in fact, I didn’t like my husband. I’d gone from the cage of my parents’ home to a cage of my own making. I could hardly breathe.
When I write, my self disappears. That’s ultimately what happens with Zen practice too, but I linger more on my human life with Zen, whereas with writing I’m willing to give it over completely. When I’m done writing, I feel more refreshed, as if I’ve eaten and digested my angst. The same thing can occur with meditation for me, but in a lesser way. Writing is more alive.
Burning the teakettle to a crisp because the whistle was broken and I forgot I’d turned it on.
Before the nose job, I often peered at myself in the large mirror above the sink in our family’s pink-and-black-tiled bathroom. I’d comb my straight, dark hair, adjust the collar of my black turtleneck, carefully apply my black eyeliner, then stare at my reflection and sigh. An amalgam of my parents’ noses, mine was long and sad, like a Jewish prayer. It was a problem.