In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Deena Metzger is a poet and therapist who lives in Topanga, California. Her books include The Woman Who Slept with Men to Take the War out of Them, a novel, and Tree, a diary/novel about cancer, community and healing (Wingbow Press, Berkeley, California).
May 5, 1986
We’ll see if it works. Not as a daily task, that would be too much to write my life as I live it, but as an occasional exercise, to attempt to record the multiple realities.
“A Sufi lives in two worlds,” Idris Shah says, in an interview in Yoga Journal. “It is as if one lives on two levels. Part of you is constantly listening to this inner guidance. It happens quite naturally. And the other part is living in this world. At the beginning it is not easy, but later you get used to it; it becomes quite automatic.”
You do one action, which you remember — you’re not paying a great deal of attention to what is called “normal life” because to live simultaneously on the other plane requires so much concentration. It looks one way to the world; you hope it still looks like you’re brushing your teeth, or more important, you hope your teeth are getting brushed and it seems they are, and also the work in the world is getting done, with even more quality because there’s all this heart in it holding it up. It’s as if you’re walking on your heart and it’s holding you the way the earth holds you up — if you let it — or the spirit holds you up, your heart and your spirit, one holding you by one arm and the other supporting the other arm. The task is to remember what it looks like to the world, because to you it looks quite different.
Second action of the day: send a contribution to Sy Safransky. OK, everyone does that, donates to their favorite charity, writes a check. But an amount of $18 — why? So you can say, chai, Life. Bring a moment of attention, of pointed focus to the chai — and it’s as if you’ve sent life out to the world. The radioactive cloud from the Soviet Union circles the globe — we all breathe each other. How they must be suffering. More chai, more chai.
How they must be suffering. Am I wrong to think I detected a little self-serving, self righteous, self-congratulatory joy in the few paragraphs I’d read in the neighbor’s newspaper? Were we congratulating ourselves? “You see, it happened there, aren’t they awful, they don’t tell their people. . . .” Tragic, on so many levels, and not the least is they have been able to pride themselves that they care about their people more than capitalists care about their people, and now this, the result of poverty, and distraction, but also of low morale, of not caring. Is this another kind of fallout of the cold war? This distraction from the real things — from caring. So they weren’t able to protect their people — and we send a Los Angeles doctor to teach them how to protect themselves, bone marrow banks. Another lie. An example of what we don’t tell our people: we can’t protect ourselves from this. The only protection from nuclear stuff is to leave it alone. When will we learn?
But it really wasn’t that I was sending a contribution to The Sun. That’s what it looked like, remembering the letter asking for supporters, looking for the checkbook. The truth is I’d started thinking about The Sun a few days ago and though I’d been reading it every night before I went to sleep, all the old issues I hadn’t had time for glinting on the floor by the bed, I felt oddly out of touch with Sy, whom I know only through the mails, but know so well, and I’d been looking for a way to make contact. Hella Hammid, whose photograph of Cindy Crogan watching her niece being born had illuminated the back page of a recent issue, came up to see me and we talked about The Sun as we took a walk to watch the sunset; and so he, and the magazine, had been in my mind, but things in the mind are not sufficient; I need to enact another kind of neighborhood.
For a year, I’ve been thinking about people coming onto the planet to do work together, as if each one of us is a spark of God, a holistic spark of the same spirit and now that we see each other, each one of us so distinct from the other, so wonderfully, crazily peculiar and we look at the other, delicious, so odd, quirky, or original, and think, “Why, it’s just like meeting my spitting image, a spark,” and we fall in love.
Well, I’ve felt, since I found The Sun, this extraordinary bonding with Sy, and how important it was to keep that bond alive. It’s not like speaking to the converted, it’s that the sacred community must be attended to stay alive. That’s what a spiritual practice is, attending to spirit, regularly, so that it stays alive. So, what I was doing was trying to say “hello” in a way that made me feel that he was answering across the ether, without his having to send a postcard (because he’s very busy) to acknowledge it. And I was looking for that jolt of joyous energy in heart that came when we made contact, anyone of us; we sustain each other.
I may be approaching the end of my novel. That scares me. I’ve gone into retreat to finish it and when I do, then what? I am passionately in love with this book. You have to be. When you start a novel it’s like a marriage — this has been almost eight years (with a few lovers on the side, I admit). I dress carefully because I don’t know what I will write today and I want to be beautiful for Shechem. I take a shower, but it is another kind of shower; I wash myself, also, for Shechem. I expect we will make love. Dinah, my namesake, the dybbuk, lives in me. I know she’s writing this book. She loved Shechem. Her brothers killed him, brutally, and a few thousand more Hivites, in fact all the Hivite men. Genesis 34. The worst story. And I was named for it. So we write a book. So this time he won’t die. Another Deena falls in love with a Palestinian, Jamine. He comes from the place where her name was born and where this story took place. Nablus. The West Bank. Is this beginning to sound horrific? This time he won’t die, we pray. But we do more than pray. We write it down. We insist it with the sacred letters, the magical inscriptions on air. I choose a necklace — which one? — oh yes, the one I bought in Beersheba, the one with three arabic coins hanging from amber beads. The ones from Palestine. He, Shechem/Jamine, could have given them to me. We see a woman dressing, that’s all. But she is dressing her soul.
So this is where we are. I prepare to write, but a story calls to me. “The Story Hearer” by Grace Paley. It’s been lying by my bed for weeks. I begin to read it. It engages me so deeply, I say, take it to a proper chair, read it consciously, not haphazardly as you are now, perched at the edge of the bed, impatient, eager to start your day. This is your day. Read the story. I carry it to the table. I begin it, it engages me even further. Why? Something about the leap from level to level — I do that in my writing, and I can learn from her — and then it occurs to me, to do this exercise: read the story and record the leaps as I leap. Can I just for an hour or so get the mind down on paper? Also, I think, if my time were limited, if when I’d gone to the doctor on Friday and he’d said, “Cancer” (instead of, “Don’t worry, you’re fine”), and I’d said, “OK, surgery but nothing else — no chemo, no radiation,” and he’d said, “Well, then, six months. . . .” A tragedy? Look at the day, how luminous the strawberries are, the mustard, the black cat playing with the light, the passion between my legs, the heart, the intensity and glory of the love, the loving, loving, loving. . . . Yes, tragic, but since I live so many lives at once, six months for me, even a day, even this hour this morning, is equal to several lifetimes for someone else. Didn’t I once pray for this intensity? Didn’t I say I wanted the ability to type on three typewriters at once, answer three phones, make love, be silent, be in solitude, dance, fast, drink wine, talk, talk, talk — well, this is close.
Back to Grace, why this story spoke to me — not only the levels — because the question in the story is, “What did you do today with your year off?” And I’ve got this day and I’ve taken a year off. . . .
What did she do? Well, she had conversations, ordinary, profound ones at the market, for example, and they led her to Chile and war, and heart, and good old marriages, and nightmares, lettuce boycotts, having babies, too old or not, and Sarah, therefore, and circumcision (twice alluded to though she isn’t overt about it when she’s on it the second time, thinking about Abraham and Isaac, and why that old man thought it was worthwhile to sacrifice his own son, his own son, and we’re still doing it 3,330 years or more later), the three monotheistic horsemen of perpetual bossdom and war (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and women, and beauty, and vegetables, and hard work, the multiplicity of an ordinary conscious life. . . . I finish the story; it was only a device the universe created to get me to write this. (I am attentive, I am obedient, even — especially — when I don’t know what I’m doing.) And now I can throw out Mother Jones because for this retreat I’m only reading The Sun. The Nation? Into the wastebasket, because as Grace put it, “My dear, in the late morning I left our apartment. The Times was folded on the doormat of 1-A. I could see that it was black with earthquake, war and private murder. Clearly death had been successful everywhere but not — I saw when I stepped out the front door — on our own block. Here it was springtime. . . .”
For three months in retreat, I don’t have to read death. And who knows, maybe not forever. It doesn’t mean it won’t occur, if I won’t read about it. (Still, does the tree fall in the forest if no one hears it?) Nor does it mean I will stop trying to do something to counter the unnatural deaths, but it does mean that I stop paying to be entertained by it.
If The Times didn’t have death to sell, it might lose its customers, so you see, it has a vested interest. That’s why I gave chai to The Sun. Its readers buy it for the sunshine.
Now I’ve got to turn to Shechem/Jamine. I’m glad I still don’t know what I’m doing in that novel, even though She told me quite clearly yesterday. If I knew, I couldn’t do it. I may not be able to do it now, but at least I don’t know what it is I’m not doing.
I read Starhawk yesterday, also in Yoga Journal, and I began to see the dangers of saying “She.” Yes, we have to restore the balance but there is no balance if you say “She.” I don’t think it’s going to work if we say “She” for two thousand years, the first few years wonderful and then who knows how many terrible years (because we’ll be out of balance again). We can’t just make a pile of everything we think is the good stuff and call it “She.” (Yes, I’m prejudiced, I have sons, I have lovers, and anyway, I love them, the others, the ones who are not me, the other halves, myself.) If we do, we’ll have to say “He” for the following two thousand. (“We should all live so long,” Naomi Newman as Jewish Hag would say.) The balance is being restored now because the Goddess isn’t only “She.” I just made an altar to the Goddess — Dionysus is there with Priapus next to the Snake Goddess and Aphrodite, Asherah, etc., but it is occurring to me in this instant that I’ve got to stop saying “the altar to the Goddess or the altar to the Gods.”
I made an altar to the Spirits and We is there in all Our forms. . . .
I think it works.
Well, this is the journal of the morning. Does it capture the levels of a mind during one morning . . . is it close? Or is it close as a letter to Sy and to the other kids who hang out in The Sun neighborhood? Well, type it out, send it off — it’s very long. Maybe Sy will have time to read it. If he wants he can print it or parts of it, he can cut it how he pleases. It’s up to him what he does with it. After all, letters, even legally, belong to the person who receives them. And when you send something out in the world, you have to let it go to live its own life. Although you’re a Jewish mother, even you know that.