Holocaust Day, my children, & my mind’s eye.

Auschwitz_TrainOccasionally, on Holocaust Day or some other, random day, I will look at my children, and see them on a train.

See them starved. See their clothes in shreds. See them with blank eyes and sores on their faces, their hair matted, all joy, all light, gone.

My mind doesn’t allow me to go far down these paths (a fact for which I am eternally grateful), but it peeks down the path, toward the incomprehensible at the other end, and then I recoil in pain and tears.

If for no other reason that I know that I am not, really, seeing anything.

My mind providing me, unbidden, with an image it imagines to be something like Jewish children at the time of the Holocaust is simply me overlaying a hundred thousand photographs on top of my beautiful children’s faces. It’s nothing like actually seeing it. It’s not being a mother, probably even hungrier than the child, for having eschewed as much food as she could for as long as she could, in favor of her babies, her clothes also rags, an understanding (that the child can’t match) of the enormity of the darkness that surrounds them, has invaded their homes and their families and their very skin, looking at her 11 year old boy and seven year old daughter and knowing — knowing — that they will die.

Knowing that they will die horrific, meaningless deaths, deaths that she cannot in any way stop. The moment of wondering: Would it be better to find some way to kill them myself, to save them what awaits?

But who knew what awaited? And yet surely, many mothers and fathers found themselves hoping to find the inner strength to kill their own children, before the evil could overcome them.

I chose this faith, I chose this people. If I had been in Europe during those nightmare years, I may have been given a choice to walk away.

But my husband — whose four grandparents saw the writing on the wall in 1933 and left Germany to its devils, thus allowing the best man I’ve ever known to come into my life one night in December 1991, as we danced to loud music and laughed with friends, a week after I’d become a Jew — my husband would not have been given that choice.

My children would not have been given that choice.

I want to believe that I would not have left them, for any reason, but I know that the particular barbarism of the Nazis created circumstances in which people did things that were unimaginable, unspeakable, things for which they could never forgive themselves. I cling to the idea that I would have managed, at least, to stand with my chosen people, with my babies, and die with them.

Last night, we lit a yahrzeit candle together and made kaddish.

Today it burns on my stove, surrounded by pots and pans, in a kitchen with a freezer too full with shopping, at one end of a house that has never been cold. I scrub at the little bit of dried egg stuck on my burner, wash the dishes as a surprise for my husband, and when my son calls to say that he’s forgotten his folder, I get in the car and bring it to school, a note tucked inside to tell him I love him.

Because I can do these things, I do them, with gratitude and with a sort of stunned awe that I get to do them at all.

If my babies had been there, they would have died.

Yes, honey. I’ll bring you your folder.

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Reupped from Holocaust Day 2011.

The Fault in Our Stars and American death.

PLEASE NOTE THAT HEREUNDER BE (mild) SPOILERS.

I think I’ve been pretty open in my admiration for author/internet person John Green. I love his videos, I love his engagement with community, I love his sense of humor, and I love his writing — which is to say: As a reader, I love his stories, and as a writer, I love how he uses language. I claim with pride the mantle of nerdfighter (if you don’t know what that is, go here and/or here) and do my best everyday not to forget to be awesome (here). (I’m also a huge, huge fan of John’s brother Hank, but I digress).

The work for which the elder Green is best known — far and away — is his 2012 book The Fault in Our Stars, recently made into a movie (June 6 release). TFIOS (as the title gets shortened) is a small masterpiece, managing to be neither maudlin, nor treacley, nor false in telling the story of the romance between two teenagers with cancer. It’s an affirmation of the ways in which all lives matter, no matter how few the years or how small the stage, and a reminder of the power of love and joy to create infinity, even when the end of days is all too evident. It’s a thing of beauty, a wonder-ful piece of art that is deeply, deeply human. It’s also been translated into a gajillion languages — I read some of the Hebrew translation in Israel last year and burst into tears as if I’d never read it before — and has inspired an avalanche of TFIOS-inspired fan art, much of it created by the teenaged, YA audience for whom Green originally intended the book.

As you might imagine, the anticipation for the movie is at something of a fever pitch, and when the first trailer was released this week, whole sections of the Internet collectively lost their shit (in a good way). Green (who has been closely involved with the film project from the beginning) asked fans to record their reactions to the trailer, and so many did. One young girl, 13 year old  Naomi Horn, talked about losing her uncle to pancreatic cancer when she was seven, and then just two years later, having to watch her mother face down breast cancer; both the trailer and Naomi’s video are embedded below.

But now, 400 words later, I come to my point.

Watching Naomi’s video last night, it struck me that I’d never really made a mental connection between The Fault in Our Stars and my own father’s death to cancer, when he was only 35 and I was just a baby. Those facts were, I think, too far in the past — and anyway, back when my dad was dying, people didn’t talk about the fact that they were dying. There was no pre-gaming the event, no preparing the family, no writing journals for the children who would come of age without him — just denial. It was the mid-60s, and (my mother tells me) you just didn’t talk about it.

And so it came to me to wonder what kind of difference it might have made in my life if a book like TFIOS had been around when I was Naomi’s age and still very much struggling to accept that I would never know my father — that I could (as I later put it) cry a river, and it would never bring me to him.

But then, an hour or so later, it came to me to wonder what a difference it might have made for my father if he had had a book like TFIOS when he was young — when the idea that he might die at 35 would no doubt have seemed impossible.

We can only live in the slice of history into which we are born. There was no TFIOS in the 1940s when my dad was a teenager (or in the 70s/80s, when I was one) because American culture had to reach a point where we could allow a TFIOS.

But in the moments in which these thoughts came tumbling into my forebrain, I thought of another thing: The Fault in Our Stars is not just a phenomenal book — it is also a turning point in the way that American culture deals with death. It is the turning point — John Green has created a turning point for us, a turning point full of kindness and gentleness and honesty and humanity and deep, deep mattering.

That turning will only be magnified by the movie, which will in turn be magnified by the many, many ways in which the TFIOS community responds and America responds and the people who have read and watched all across the globe respond — but it all started with John Green. With one book that will matter in ways that people reading it today will not know until they are forced to call upon its lessons in the future.

I’m sorry my father couldn’t have had those lessons as he approached his own too-young death, and that I didn’t either, as I tried to grow up without him. But I’m grateful, and a little overawed, as I think about the mighty gift that John Green has given the world in the form of Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters. What a gift. Thank you.

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The wilderness of life.

Anna Clark tweet 29 Oct 13

I’ve often said that there’s nothing more punk than love, but I think Columbia Journalism Review’s Anna Clark has me beat in the punk department.

Thoughts on shipping.

A ship-shipping ship, shipping shipping ships. source (for the image, as well as the caption)

A ship-shipping ship, shipping shipping ships. source (for the caption as well as the image. I’m not that clever).

Not that kind of shipping. Shipping. Like when you write fan fiction (on paper or in your head) in which fictional characters fall in luuuuve with each other and (presumably, at some point) have sex and/or are permanently joined together in sacred and/or fleshy bliss. It comes from the word “relationship” – hence “shipping,” as in: “I ship Harry and Ron, everyone knows they were the real love story at Hogwarts!”

And if you don’t know it yet — yes, that really is a thing, all across the various realms of geekdom, and recently more broadly in popular culture. So you’ll have fan communities who create art or write stories or make videos that bring together two (or more) characters who were not imagined by their creator as romantically involved.

Coupla things. Thing the First, and let’s just get this out of the way: I have a thing about canon. The creator is, to my mind, God in the universe of these characters to whom we feel so attached, and thus, if JK Rowling didn’t think that Harry and Ron would fall in love — well, she would know. Plain and simple. It’s one thing to create fan art that builds on the creator’s world, but I honestly think it’s another thing entirely to upend the story as the creator intended for it to be told. In my always humble (and probably minority) opinion.

But here’s Thing the Second, and Thing the Second is actually the thing that I believe is most important.

Most of these imagined relationships (Harry-Ron, Kirk-Spock, Jess-Jules [Bend It Like Beckham], Arthur-Merlin [Merlin], Katniss-Peeta-Gale, etc and so on, ad infinitum) don’t just upend the story as originally conceived, they upend the sexuality of those involved, often because the characters are so close — their relationship runs so deep — that we do not know how to let it be friendship. We do not know how to understand need and longing and fierce loyalty, unless it’s about romance and sexuality.

And thus, to my mind, when we ship Kirk and Spock, or Arthur and Merlin, or Sam and Frodo, we’re not only doing a disservice to the creator’s vision, we’re dishonoring the characters, and revealing more about about ourselves and our society than we may have intended. 

Note, for instance, that most shipping seems to entail male characters — as a society, we’re usually ok with girls and women loving each other and expressing that love in a way that is not romantic or sexual. Men on the other hand? We really don’t know what to do with that.

So we change it. We diminish and dismiss men’s capacity for loving each other — truly, deeply loving each other — and insist that such love can only find true expression in something akin to 21st century notions of romance and sexuality.

Once upon a time, in mid-19th century America, men wrote love letters to each other — honest to God, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking of our last hours spent together,” love letters to each other. Like, it was thing. You wrote to your friends and told them how you felt.

And true to late-20th/early 21st century form, letters such as these have led some to conclude that Abraham Lincoln himself was gay, despite copious evidence to the contrary — because why else would he express such tender affection for a man? Even though I presume that at least some of the men writing these letters were, in fact, expressing an emotion to which they were otherwise unable to give voice, sheer statistics would suggest that most of them weren’t. Which is to say: We weren’t always like this, America.

I do understand that some fan fic/shipping comes in response to the appalling dearth of LGBTQ love stories in our culture, and I guess it’s easier for me, a straight woman, to not want to validate the work that some people create around a love they’d like to see expressed. I will concede that.

But beyond that, mostly it just cheeses me off. You cannot tell me that a romantic, sexual relationship between Sam and Frodo would have been deeper or more real than the relationship we are told they had; you cannot tell me that Merlin’s love for Arthur was any less because they didn’t have sex.

I’m tired of telling boys and men that they cannot, may not love each other — frankly, shipping of this kind is little more than the flip-side of guys who yell “No homo!” after a big hug. There is nothing wrong with men falling in love with other men; there is also nothing wrong with men having loving friendships.

And with that, I have likely sealed my fate in the geek community, and so I bid you adieu. It was fun while it lasted. I’ll just be over here, reading my books.

Our children, so fragile.

I wrote this essay for The Dallas Morning News a few years back, and first posted it here sometime later.
My recent post about little girls and body image brought it to mind, because it’s all the same question: How do we protect our children, when we can’t? How do we teach them to live with their own fragility (and teach ourselves to live with our own powerlessness)? So I thought I’d run it again. It’s all still true – and the kids just continue to grow and grow.

Our children, so fragile

EMILY L. HAUSER – Dallas Morning News

Sunday, May 13, 2007

the-boy1

The boy – my firstborn.

When pregnant with my first child, I had the opportunity to ask my graduate school adviser if we might discuss “my future.” With a glance at my belly, he looked me in the eye and said: “Thirty years of heartache.”

To which story my aunt later responded: “Only 30 years?”

If I’ve learned nothing else since the birth of that baby nearly eight years ago, it’s that your heart always aches. Happy or sad, there are many days when the heart feels it must surely implode from the weight of emotion, not least of course, the intense and impossible need to Keep the Babies Safe.

Right now my husband and I find our little family to be bathed in the glow of blessed days. The children – a beautiful boy and girl – are healthy, smart and funny, and in addition to delighting their parents daily, actually love and enjoy each other, too. We are the family Norman Rockwell was thinking of all those years.

It is impossible, though, not to think that this golden time will inevitably end. Human experience indicates that a day will dawn on which our idyll is at the very least tarnished. The fear, of course, is that it will be shattered.

Like everyone, I know my fair share of parents whose children have been visited by tragedy. I think of my friend whose baby died at birth and the one whose 10-year-old was shot in the head. I know a kind and patient man who lost his teenager down the hole to over-the-counter drug abuse and a warm and giving woman whose previously sunny son is now, at 22, in the grip of paralyzing depression. My grandmother buried my father when he was all of 35.

They are so fragile, these babies. So many things can go wrong, and at any moment.

Paradoxically, it is my rational self that blazes a trail for me down the road to fear. The cycle of life, human nature, acts of God – all act as constant reminders that nothing is forever, that everything, eventually, breaks, rots, dies. My children’s bones will one day lie in the earth, and there is no way for me to know that their end will not come far earlier than it should or that their days will not be filled with sorrow.

My absolute inability to keep them from harm takes my breath away. Limbs will break, hearts will break. Please God, not spirits. The maxim that joy is not complete without grief to shape it interests me not in the least – let their joy be shapeless, I think, but let it be joy.

And so it is tempting to see this time of blessing as a trick of the light, an ill-defined prelude to disaster. My siblings and I were struck by catastrophe before we could read or write, when cancer snatched our father from us as surely as it did from his mother; as I grew up, all happiness was, in fact, shaped by that grief. It is hard for me to stop.

But something about this boy and this girl who I hold so lightly, with so few tools or guards, has opened a place I couldn’t dream existed. Just as I have learned that the bittersweet ache never ends, so too have my children taught me that the heart can be quiet, and that the joy in a 3-year-old’s song and a 7-year-old’s hand is unending. That these things can never be lost, even if they are taken.

I curl around my daughter in her tiny bed and hold her warmth to my belly. I cover my son with the blanket he’s tossed aside, and watch his limbs stretch endlessly beneath it, an impossible length of boy. I pray that this time will never end. I pray for the strength to hold them when it does.

Time moves inexorably forward…

…and demands that we march with it.

This person

is graduating from 8th grade tomorrow.

Which is equal parts ridiculous and bananas. Also, it’s requiring a smidge bit more of my time than I apparently thought it would (this morning’s omg-thank-God-I-thought-of-this-now-and-not-tomorrow moment was “His suit! Must be dry-cleaned!”).

Plus I have pretty hard deadlines on a couple of projects this week, not to mention that if I manage to write for Open Zion, that, too would be a good thing – I think what I’m saying here is that In My Head may be less content-ful than I might like over the next few days. (My actual head is probably too content-ful, but that’s another issue).

I’ll just say this – I once wrote this about the boy (who learned to walk in his second year when I was away for 36 hours, and grew taller than me earlier this month when I was away for 10 days) and his sister, and it’s all still true:

But if I could go back in time for anything, it would be to fall asleep with them on my chest, or make them laugh that crazy way, or run my hand over their smooth, wispy hair. I would put my nose against their necks and breathe and breathe and breathe, and check every toe and every finger and every fold in their august thighs, and will my body to remember every single thing. Before I would meet my own father, I would hold my babies, one more time.

Wouldn’t you?

Blessings of the season.

My now-annual holiday post, an essay I wrote for the Chicago Tribune a few years back. If you’re celebrating, have a wonderful and very merry Christmas — and if not, I hope you have a really terrific Tuesday!

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; Christmas c. 1930s

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem; Christmas c. 1930s

It’s about bringing light into dark places, isn’t it?

As I understand the winter holidays, our Holy Days, this is what they mean: Hope, life, tomorrow. Light, where there was none.

That’s what we mean at my house when we light our menorah, and that’s what we talk about with the kids. For eight nights, after saying the blessings, we sing a sweet, rousing song in Hebrew that announces to the darkness that it shall have no quarter: “Each of us is a small candle,” we sing. “Together, we are a great light.”

And though I am not a Christian, it seems to me that that is what Jesus’s birth means, too. Light in dark places, a small baby who brought hope to millions. “The weary world rejoices,” goes Oh Holy Night, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, “for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

And Kwanza? I’m white, but it seems to me that lighting candles to remember the struggles of the Black people, to reflect on unity, and to anticipate the future triumph over oppression is a statement of hope most deep.

There is so much darkness in the world, there always has been. But God – or Nature, or our own collective Best Self – has given us the tools to drive it back. The Jewish tradition speaks of tikkun olam, repairing the world in conjunction with the Almighty. This is our job, our highest calling. To quote another song, “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.”

And indeed, we are not the same. Our holidays are not the same, and even within our communities, our understanding of those holidays is not always the same. But in our own ways, we all seek a brighter tomorrow, a world without war, without hunger, without despair. And these holidays, even the ones that are not in my own heritage, can serve to remind me of that – as well as reminding me that there are many ways of battling evil and wrong, and that we need all of them.

We were created in a mighty multitude, and I believe God knew what He was doing when He made us different. Different brings creativity, it brings unknown joys, it brings solutions. I don’t need you to light candles at my house to believe that you are doing what you can to make the world a better place.

Every year at about this time, we hear over and over again, as we rush about our business,  that we don’t focus enough on “what really matters.” We hear from Jews who are sick of being wished a Merry Christmas, Christians who believe that one could, actually, take the Christ out of Christmas, and worshippers of the Simple who decry the cultural trappings of the whole thing. Our national anxiety about being made a victim comes to the top, and it isn’t pretty.

We need to stop. Take a nap, maybe have a cookie, and then look at each other. We’re trying our best, almost all of us, I’m certain. Sure we need to focus on “what really matters,” but bottom line, that’s what we’re trying to do.

We’re human, so sometimes we don’t do it very well. But I am certain that when my Christian neighbors tell me “Merry Christmas,” they’re just wishing me well. And when parents buy a lot of plastic for their kids, they’re just hoping for that up-from-the-gut smile that only a kid can give. Neither of these things are bad; neither of them can reduce in any way the power of the Divine to guide and comfort us.

And after all of this is behind us, it will be a new year. Let’s agree to fill it with hope, and with as much light as we can muster, for the victims of Katrina who are still without homes; for the people living with AIDS in African shanty-towns; for Israeli and Palestinian children who are growing up afraid; for the women of Darfur who cannot get water for their families for fear they will be raped. The world is a dark place; we are the ones who can bring the light in.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.

(C) Chicago Tribune, 2005

“The best video on human sexuality ever” – my 13 year old son.

There I was dozing on the couch (as one does) when I heard my 8th grader, sitting one room away at his computer, say the words “that was the best video on teenage sexuality I’ve ever seen.”

Now, it turns out he’d actually said “human sexuality,” but either way, those are words that will perk your ears right up.

I lifted my head as much as I could, yelled a muffled “Send me the link!” and — irresponsible mother that I am — fell back into a doze. But then! The very first thing I did when I arose from my slumber was to click on that link (responsibility!).

Now, I will admit, the instant I saw that the video in question had been made by Hank Green — of the VlogBrothers, Crash Course, DFTBA Records, and General Awesomeness — any concern I might have had was (and I mean this) instantly erased. The Green brothers have already taught the boy (and me) any number of wonderful things, and I have real confidence that anything either one of them might say about human sexuality is something that I can get 100% behind. Truly.

But you know: Still. If one’s boy is watching videos about human sexuality, one should watch said videos. Moreover, and not incidentally, now I was interested. What, in fact, had Hank Green said?

Well, as it turns out: Only everything. Only everything that anybody should ever say or hear about human sexuality, whether teenage or otherwise. Only everything, and in three minutes, forty-nine seconds, no less. Watch, and marvel.

And then maybe share it around, because honest to Pete. These are words that everyone on earth needs to hear. Especially these ones:

But what’s really important is that we trust ourselves and we understand ourselves, and we love and respect ourselves, and we grant that same understanding and respect to the people around us.

Thanks, Hank!

Star Trek. (Real Star Trek).

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We’ve begun to introduce the boy and the girl to the original Star Trek, because: Tradition! And they have to know their roots! And like that!

And when I say “we,” I mean “I,” because the husband could probably go the rest of his life without seeing another episode and be just as happy. Happier, maybe.

The thing is, he was never into Trek to begin with, and only kind of got into it with Next Gen. He’s both four years younger than me (nearly a generation, in pop-culture terms), and not American-born, so though he is for-sure-and-for-certain a geek — with all the Douglas Adams/Whovian/Babylon 5/LOTR/Game of Thrones/oh-and-he’s-a-software-engineer bona fides to prove it — he has no real working knowledge of just how unusual Trek was in its day, how many gates it opened, how hard they tried with what little they had. All he can see is the corny scripts and the ridiculous old-school FX, and William Shatner’s teeth, doing too much of his acting for him.

But he loves me (and you know. He doesn’t hate it!), and so for my birthday, he found a list of Top Ten TOS Episodes, and figured out how we could start catching the kids up (it involves Amazon Prime and my son’s brand-spanking-new-for-his-bar-mitzvah-PlayStation3), and off and on since my birthday (the 21st, since you’re asking, and I’m 48, since you’re quietly not asking), and with much fanfare (and literal clapping of hands and squealing [again, literal]) on my part, we began the journey!

We’re working our way through the top ten list (by airdate, since I know you know that matters), and the kids are digging it! Kinda. I mean, they’re enjoying it, but let’s face it — it’s a little old-school. And their actual introduction to Trek was the movie reboot, and honest to blog, it is simply hard to top JJ Abrams, even if you’re Gene Roddenberry. So one night, I took the trouble to assure them that it’s ok if they don’t love Mommy’s “favorite TV show ever,” and the husband almost visibly blanched.

“Oh c’mon,” he said in a tone of some horror. “Your favorite? Even you say that you like Next Gen more!”

And it’s true, reader, I do. I like Next Gen more.

But Star Trek has been, and always shall be, my favorite TV show. Ever.

Because their is no Next Gen without it. There’s no Picard, there’s no Data, there’s not even Wesley’s sweaters without it. There’s no Abrams reboot, there’s no Galaxy Quest, there might not even be any Star Wars. There’s no “live long and prosper,” there’s no “the needs of the many outweigh…” “…the needs of the few.” “Or of the one,” there’s no “I have been and always shall be your friend” (and if you’re noticing a pattern as to the source of my favorite Trek quotes, you get to go to the head of the class).

And I don’t care what you think or say: William Shatner can ding-dang act. Sometimes, he just got a little carried away, is all. It was 1966, for God’s sake. Everybody was acting with their teeth.

So yes: My favorite TV show. Ever. Possibly my favorite pop culture artifact, across all the years and all the genres. Ever.

When we’re done with the Top Ten of the Original Series, we’ll move on to somebody’s Top Ten (or, I don’t know: Twenty? It lasted a lot longer!) of Next Gen. And then maybe The Wrath of Khan. And then the reboot again. If the kids’ spirits flag, we’ll spread it out a little! Just because I was clapping my hands and squealing doesn’t mean they have to, too. And we’ll squeeze Galaxy Quest in, too, while we’re at it.

But if I share nothing else of my internal world with them, I have to share this. Because it really kind of is who I am.

See?

*******

PS Just a reminder: Another Jewish holiday will be underway as soon as the sun sets here in Middle America, so I won’t be posting on Monday, and if your comment gets caught in moderation, I’ll fish it out as soon as I can. A happy and healthy Sukkot/Monday to one and all!

 

 

Dear Human.

There’s been a lot of Middle East/North Africa misery around these parts this week. So for now, this:

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Like the Taco Baby, this is also thanks to my Twitter pal ImtheQ. She’s a source of many wonderful things.

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