Meet Me Where You Left Me

Watching the news one night, my husband raised the feminist flag. Four women awkwardly crossed their bare legs on the couch. One man, his legs spread wide to accommodate his shrinking masculinity, sat in the center. On our side of the screen, my husband squirmed and called it out. And I rolled my eyes.

We talked about it. He blamed his background and thanked me for helping him see the reality but didn’t appreciate that I don’t allow him into the conversation. I said I spent too many lonely years screaming to now pat him on the back when he sees misogyny. I’d rather he fight where it makes a difference, calling men out when they say that stupid joke or comment or gesture from an upright position as it happens, not as casual commentary when we’re alone.

We didn’t do a good job validating each other and went to bed upset.

The painful conversation the next morning covered my loneliness and the fact that for years I was convinced I would lose him.

I knew he had to find his way on his own but I didn’t know if it would end up at my side. He explored every aspect of Judaism; the cracks and corners where the grey turns vibrant and the black and white pages of his youth. When the walls caved in and he saw his truth, I stood next to him while he found his footing. When he did, it was solid and purposeful. And he walked ahead, leaving me where I had been waiting, exploring a world of ideas that excited him and broadened his mind in a way that overwhelmed me.

I was still lonely.

We cried, and we talked, and we promised to find a blank page we could write in together.

Then, because he was searching for something to help understand me better, he found a path that led straight to my open wounds.

Our relationship is not strengthened by what we have been through together. Those experiences, the cycles of life and love, have shaped who we are as people. What draws the outline of who we are together are the things we overcame as we circled around each other desperately trying to wrap our arms tight around the individual experiences the other had without us, soothing the loneliness we carry in our hearts.

This is how the love of my life discovered the crater between us and, without bothering to build a bridge, leaped over to my side and made us more than we ever were.

* * *

The panel is comprised of Orthodox women actively fighting the status quo. They are strong and intelligent and hell-bent on being heard. They talk about women disappearing and how it is not their Torah. They speak of holiness and femininity and their right to learn and teach and participate in the halachic discussion.

Then they open the floor to questions.

“How do you explain the halacha that states when a man and woman are drowning, you must save the man first?”

There is a moment where I, sitting on the other end of the couch reading about the different ways humanity is working to abolish hatred from the world we share, raise my head in mild hope to hear what wisdom the women my husband is trying to learn from can possibly have that I have not heard before.

I’ve learned to lower my expectations so I’m not that disappointed when the answers fall where they have always gathered, exposed on the ground shamefully.

But his eyes are widening and he is turning to me in shock. He can’t believe the way they have walked around the question, claiming to have accepted the bad with the good because it was different then. He can’t believe they dismiss the inconsistencies and ignore the way their bad answers leave more questions in their wake. He is bothered by it, bothered by my eyes rolling up in response because these, and more sophisticated pacifistic answers I have spent my life combating, are just a drop in the vast bucket of inadequacies I have been made to feel as a woman made from the ribs of a man.

He is racing through it all now; hearing the ways I have been explained since I realized my vagina made me less than. He is learning the tones and nuances of words falling flat against an ever-expanding sense of worthlessness. He is walking in the imprints my shoes made as I wandered around and around in my loneliness and he is gutted by the pain I never could describe.

“I didn’t know,” he says. “I mean, you told me…but I didn’t really get it. I never heard these words said these ways…I never looked and looked and couldn’t find a way to make it feel right…I never walked a second in your path, and I didn’t know how lonely you were.”

I thank him. He is sorry it is so late.

But I am grateful because he gets it.

“I can’t even begin to explain how much it means to me that I am valued to you, not only as your friend and partner but as a woman who faced this alone my whole life.”

I pause as I think of the weight we carry when we walk along our destiny.

“To have you take my hand and stand with me makes it all feel a little lighter.”

I remember how years ago, I stood at a crossroad and watched him walk down a path that didn’t suit me. Watching him disappear, I wrote.

I walk the lonely road…

twisting…turning…forever changing…

and as I wander…

I believe…I doubt…I question…I yearn…I want.

He walks…on a different road…

twisting and turning in ways I don’t always understand…

with a belief…a doubt…a question…a yearning…a want…so different from mine.

Sometimes we meet…at a fork in the road.

He goes right…I go left…

our eyes drawn back towards the place we knew together…

as our souls move over rocky paths…smooth sand…and raging rivers.

We can be this lonely…because we are together…and we are together…because we are this lonely.

And I smile because there is a place in my little corner of the universe where I have finally been given the strength to fly farther than that road ever could have taken me.

Uncovered

Orthodox Judaism has a uniform. It varies according to sect and strictness of observance, but it’s always there, worn as an identity.

As a child, I wore long, mid-calf skirts, sleeves below my elbows and necklines that covered my collarbone. I was lucky I could wear kneesocks, I couldn’t stand the feeling of tights, and I had room for expression with my hair and earrings. I pushed the boundaries as far as I could which wasn’t very far but made me a rebel. I got long cowboy boot earrings and rolled my socks down to my ankles. I pulled my sleeves up and stretched out my collars.

When I was a teenager, I exchanged that uniform for the one that branded me as trouble. I wore provocative graphic t-shirts I had cut so they fell off one shoulder. I stole my boyfriend’s jeans and cargo pants and sported big black clunky boots. My hair hung around my face, stringy and unkempt. My hands, encased in homemade fingerless gloves, smelled like an ashtray and constantly twitched.

When I tried sobriety on, I bought wrap-around skirts that swept the ground and kept my t-shirts closer to my body.

And then, when the boy who wore flannel shirts on top of sweatshirts and baggy pants added tzitzit that flew behind him and a kippa that got lost in his wild hair, I thought about another uniform. He asked me to dinner one night. I got a haircut, put on my sister’s clothing, and said yes when he asked me to marry him sporting short hair and a clean collared shirt.

Very soon after, he walked down to meet me, a black hat I had never seen on his head, and the white fabric I uncomfortably wore constricted around me. The hat never reappeared, but a different kind took its place, and a beard grew with sidelocks, and black and white only on Shabbat, and I didn’t care because when you don’t believe in god, you don’t shake a marriage over a uniform. And anyway, my skirts and shirts were changing with every season, every pregnancy, and every time I looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognize the woman staring back at me.

But my head stayed under wraps. Always, I kept my hair tucked beneath fabric I fought with each morning.

Until he started sharing his doubts with me.

We started to strip. Slowly, we took off the bits of cloth that weighed us down and told the world the lie we once believed. And then it was down to a little bandana wound around my brain. Every day I would look at it and cry.

I was tired of crying.

I walked out of the house without it late one Friday night when I knew no one else would be outside.

It took a while to feel comfortable without a uniform. I still feel naked at times. But that first time will stay with me always; an unveiling that is seared in my memory with a plaque reading: Here lies a woman of valor.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The air is cool and brisk. It has been a dry, moody winter and when the cold rain fell this morning a sigh of relief spread over me like a blanket. I am reminded that my sneakers don’t absorb water with a misstep into a pool of rainfall gathering in the groves of uneven pavement. It is dark and this section of sidewalk is poorly lit. My damp toes are worth the protection night has given me.

We are walking around the block. The kids are excited to be out in their pajamas. They chatter and skip, burying their noses in coats someone sent us from a place where winter means snow. Their cheeks are beginning to flush; I’m glad I left the windows open at home.

My husband walks beside me. His every stride is two of mine. No matter how hard we try; we are never fully in sync. He hums, occasionally adding a whistle, the way he does whenever he is lost in thought. I snake my hand into his pocket and find his welcoming fingers.

My heart is pounding.

My entire body is shaking.

I can feel every hair on my scalp.

I want to lower my head. I want to put my hood on. I want to run back home. I want to cry and laugh and cry.

A breeze blows towards me. I can feel the wind run through my exposed strands gently, almost lovingly. My eyes, stinging from the storm raging deep inside my tortured body, tear and swell, spilling sorrow down my cheeks where winter licks them softly dry.

We turn the last corner. We are alone on these cold, wet streets. We are performing a ritual we barely understand ourselves. They are accompanying me as I walk away from the crushing burden I know more intimately than the bare-head reflection I see in the mirrored lobby wall.

She smiles at me as I pass, her eyes are bright and bold and beautiful.

A Stroll Through a Lifetime

I need to preface this blog post with a bit of an explanation as well as an apology. I have been toying with an idea for a while now. I did not know how to begin until today when I was struck by the love and understanding I have for the ultra-Orthodox world my husband and I left in stages over the past four years. During our process, we searched for anything relating to what we were going through and found that our situation seemed to be different than most.

Firstly, we had been raised Orthodox and had, because of different issues with abuse and an anger I can only classify as rage, acted out in extreme behaviors. Our adolescent years were spent rejecting religion, but also rejecting social norm while indulging in irrational and destructive habits. When we grew up enough to marry and start a family, we shed ourselves of the emotional burdens we had accumulated and embraced religion wholeheartedly. Our 20s brought reflection and philosophy so that when we decided to leave Orthodoxy, it was with thought and quite a lot of cautious compartmentalizing. We had to constantly check in with our emotions to ensure that our decisions were not tied up in feelings. When we did finally make our exit, we did so with an understanding of where our emotions lay and where our conscious led us. How that felt is the subject for a different post.

The second difference we saw was that we were making this choice with children old enough to understand. It was so difficult to factor them in. We looked for other families and could not find anyone open to talk or write about it. We spent an entire year weighing every factor carefully and included our children’s thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, they were given a vote before we took any action.

I really wanted to document the different struggles we went through as a family and individually. I feel that there are other families out there who are in a similar boat we were in and are searching, as we did, for someone to share their experience. I didn’t want to write another OTD blog full of resentment and I also didn’t want to write a theological blog sourcing every move with the research we did and intellectualizing our experience.

In one five-minute walk to the bus stop, I found the tone I would like to take. The breadth of emotion I felt as I walked through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood at my doorstep floored me. I have so many conflicting feelings and they played a huge part in everything we went through. I’d like my voice to come from my heart and remain personal. If someone can relate to it, I hope that it will help them find expression and in no way influence the decisions they are grappling with.

Before I begin, I would like to publicly apologize to those who will be hurt by my story. I love so much of what I left behind and would never want to destroy the relationships we’ve worked hard to rebuild. Hearts and souls were put into creating us. If you had any hand in teaching us, loving us or lifting us up out of the mud, know that we understand you have every right to be disappointed that we rejected your beliefs and traditions. We love and respect you. We needed to do this for us and as much as it hurts, we understand that there is a part of you that can never accept that. I know the idea of publicizing what you believe to be intimate is difficult for you. I respect that, although I wish you would look past your discomfort and try to understand my point of view. I try to keep an open mind when I encounter your thoughts and feelings and wish only for you to do the same. I wish this didn’t hurt you and I am sorry it is at my hand. Thank you for loving me despite this.

With all that said, here is the beginning of a reflection that may never end.

***

Today I need to take the bus to the other side of the city.

It is a five-minute walk from my house to the bus stop.

I turn right at the corner and walk into the crack between my timeline and the one I left behind.

I pass a school and hear the recorded voices of little girls set to the beat of a solitary drum. It is the camp theme song. They must have recorded a few and multiplied each voice so it sounds like a choir of hundreds.

I am reminded that it is now the three weeks. The girls will make sure to keep the mood somber even as they skip and play. No one will attempt to travel or jump from a too high rock into too shallow water. Everyone knows someone who had an accident during this time.

The girls are wearing blue skirts I can feel against my legs as I adjust my jeans. My pleats never managed to stay down and my hems liked to droop. I can feel the zipper, stuck again, and the pin that always opened and pricked my side. My throat constricts a little and I glance at the collars of the crisp button-down opaque white shirts. The top button closes against my neck. I will wait until I am alone to defy it and expose the bone it conceals.

I steal one more glance at the girls milling about the schoolyard. There is longing in my gaze.

My hand reaches to feel my bare neck. I trace the outline of my loose cotton t-shirt. I am relieved to feel my skin as I inhale and move on.

Now I hear the sounds of boys learning in unison. I find my lips turning up in a gentle smile. I know the beauty of this singsong. My eyes have welled at the sight of torch-bearing children leading a canopy swarmed with joyous men down a street lined with women and girls. Sitting with my legs dangling, my fingers sticky sweet, I’ve watched the dancing blur circle over and over again. The pride when someone I knew held the sacred scroll jolts me forward on my two-minute walk towards the bus.

A woman scurries past me pushing a stroller. She is wearing a black scarf and a black blouse with a pleated black skirt. Her stockings are three shades darker than the color of her skin and her shoes are sensible and comfortable. I see the little flash of pink in her ears and the small floral pin fastened to her collar. I smile as our eyes meet. She turns her head away and quickens her pace. She doesn’t seem to see the recognition in my eyes. She doesn’t see me as familiar because I look like a stranger to them now.

I have less than a minute left on my walk. I notice the men looking down and the wide eyes of passing children. I see the garbage in the streets. I smell the heat wafting up from the layers of clothing.

But the songs are still stuck in my head.

My heart sees this world as I pass through. It feels it’s beat. It hears the sounds and can taste the comfort. My heart sometimes sees this world more objectively than I do.

My mind reminds my heart to settle.

I will always see the beauty. I will always feel the love and warmth of that world.

The further away I go, the fewer details I see. I am not the little boy cowering from his teacher. I am not the little girl pulling up her socks in resentment. I am not getting touched in the classroom or in the basement. I am not standing before judgment at all times. I am not hiding in an alley with a cigarette and then going back to shul for the blessing over endless whiskey. I am not sitting with a man who calls himself rabbi as he is telling me that he is sexually attracted to me because all men are sexually attracted to girls, even if they are fifteen years old. I am not defiant and angry because my dreams were denied me. I am not holding on to what could have been. I am not the details anymore.

The crack between the worlds closes up behind me as the doors of the bus open and I climb on board.

I sit down wearily.

Five minutes takes a lifetime.

Someone Called the Rabbi on Me…

I debated writing this post…I thought that maybe I shouldn’t stir any trouble…that if I did say something, I would only be hurting myself more.

But I have to write how I feel and I have to put it out there where it will be seen. This is who I am; this is how I can keep going through all the twists and turns of my life.

So here it is…here is how I felt when I found out that the Rabbi of the community I am currently living in was called about me and my family…how we had left Orthodoxy…and the subsequent tangible murmurings and distance we’ve felt.

Making this decision was agonizing for me and my husband, and extremely challenging with children old enough to understand the process. We never really felt a deep connection with this community, but we had built friendships within it and had a surface-level kinship with most of the members as coreligionists.

Now that we have even less in common with so many of the people in our small community, the emotional baggage of our childhoods has resurfaced along with the need to fit in or blend in so that we can avoid the pain of living on the outside. We’ve worked on that, and we have embraced our decisions and our truths and no longer feel shame or fear about who we are.

I write this for that person hiding in the pack, afraid of someone finding something out and having the shame of the protective blanket of lies wrapped around them ripped away in unwanted exposure.

You may be feeling alone right now, but feeling alone with a truth you can live with is far better than feeling alone with a truth you cannot face.

I don’t know how old I was when someone told me telling the truth was shameful and should be avoided at all costs.

I did not want the shame I already felt to be seen by anyone else so I made lying my truth.

When I was 12 years old, someone called my mother to tell her that somewhere along the way, I had not learned to read. My skin burned red and no one wrapped me up in comfort and told me I did not have to lie.

When I was 13 years old, someone found a packet of my lying truths I wrote to test the waters of friendship and trust and returned them to sender. My parents read my spun tales and believed me when I said I had lied but the shame washed over me like he had said it would so I dug the truth deeper under my skin.

When I was 15 years old, someone thought I had disappeared and searched all over for me, finding me walking back to safety with a boy who had bought me pizza and listened to my hopes and aspirations without judgment. I was dragged back to the security of taped mouths and bound bodies and saw shame in my parents’ eyes. It felt like daggers stabbing a dead corpse and I knew that my heart had been stolen.  

When I was 16 years old, someone called my father to tell him about something I had done in a dark garage at the end of a long driveway where my heart was pounding and fear was forcing my eyes shut and my body to learn the fine art of floating into the trees outside. We didn’t speak about it because I no longer existed.

When I was 17 years old, someone called someone every time I came up for air.

When I was 20 years old, I found something deep within that felt like a truth and everyone I loved was able to breathe again because they could bear the truth I wore.

When I was 30 years old, I could no longer let that truth that had been a lie drain my soul. I decided I was going to learn to love that little girl who was so afraid of shame.

When I was 32 years old, I found that I had absorbed all shame and could finally live a truth that was mine.

Then someone called the Rabbi on me…

And now I am 10 years old again and I am nodding my head and promising that I will never tell.

Unmasked

I have worn my face behind something other than my skin for so long I don’t know if I can recognize my reflection.

At first, I wore the way I felt outside my heart. I didn’t know not to do that. I didn’t know that hearts exposed make people feel uncomfortable.

I learned to hide my heart when one too many people wore it down.

Instead, I took my anger and hate and wrapped myself up in loneliness and presented me to the world.

When I couldn’t bear myself anymore, I found belief to peer out from under and I made myself shut down.

I wore a skirt and then a headscarf. I looked down and kept quiet. I blended in.

I was miserable.

I was lost.

I thought there was no one left behind the face I put on beneath the years of expectations and the demands of my past dictating each step I took.

One day, broken, misunderstood and fed up with how I was seen, I tore my hair covering off my head and felt the wind.

It was as if I tapped myself on the shoulder and turned around in surprise as I met someone I use to know.

We are getting to know each other, she and I.

I think I like her.

I am standing on a wire now, between skins. I am slowly peeling off the layers.

What I find brings me comfort and peace, even while it hurts the ones I love.

I know you wish I could accept the mask I was handed at birth and learn to embrace it.

I want you to know that I tried, I really did.

This mask didn’t fit me. I squirmed beneath it until I felt like I had died.

But I haven’t died…I have just discovered that I am alive.

The mask is coming off now…

I am about to shine.