short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

happy second birthday, NPITV!

No Power in the ‘Verse turns two today! I started the blog as I was applying to rabbinical school, and I am now a quarter of the way through school (or will be once the small matter of two finals and two papers is taken care of).

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

The following are my three most popular posts from the past year (which are also the most popular posts to date):

1. “yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”: A painful reflection I wrote the morning after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

2. she who has a why: A tribute to my friend Elissa, who died this spring at the age of 29. May her memory be always for a blessing.

3. there are six matriarchs: (And you can own a shirt that says so!) A meditation on the ger (“stranger”) in Jewish tradition.

Thanks for reading — and for accompanying me on this journey!

a day of mourning

Today is Yom HaZikaron in Israel, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In addition to the national memorial services that take place, the day opens (the preceding evening, since Jewish days begin at sunset) with a country-wide siren during which everyone and everything stops for a minute of silence.

It’s also Patriots’ Day here in Boston, a local holiday ostensibly commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord — also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run. There’s also always a Red Sox home game.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are often at complete odds with one another. This morning’s tefila was soulful and somber. My Bible teacher, who raised her children in Israel, read a piece she had written when one of her son’s fellow soldiers was killed near the Golan Heights. The mother of the slain soldier had asked my teacher to take care of her own son (the one who had survived), that he might not be forever haunted by his friend’s death. It was heartbreaking.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how so many of my friends would be running the race, or watching the race, or watching the baseball game. One of my classmates, who has lived in Boston for several years now, said that it was too bad that those of us new to Boston wouldn’t get the chance today to enjoy Patriots’ Day the way it should be celebrated: by drinking lots of beer and watching the race. We talked about going down to Commonwealth Avenue, near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, during lunch. (Homework called instead.)

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how I wished I were running the race today. It’s been my dream since college to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get fast enough to do so during my five years here.

As I sat in Hebrew class this afternoon, my husband texted me that bombs had exploded near the marathon finish line. As of this writing, two people are dead and dozens are wounded. (Everyone I knew running or watching the race is fine.) We began a frantic checking in via Facebook, Twitter, text message, and phone call.

And just like that, the days synched.

she who has a why

[S]he who has a why can bear almost any how. -Frederick Nietzsche

The second week in January I took an interfaith seminar called “Experiencing Islam” in conjunction with Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. I had lunch on one day with an ANTS student, and I told her (a short version of) the story of my journey to the rabbinate. One of the weird things I find about being a new rabbinical student is that, after months of talking about nothing else, I am no longer regularly asked — and I don’t ask any of my classmates of themselves — why I want to be a rabbi.

In talking with my future colleague, I found myself thinking back to the high holidays in October of 2011, almost a year-and-a-half ago. I went to Sixth & I’s Yom Kippur services at Calvary Baptist Church, which Rabbi Shira Stutman led. During the service, Elissa Froman gave a talk. In her introduction, Shira noted that Elissa was planning to start HUC-JIR Rabbinical School the next summer. And I remember having a twinge of jealousy and wanting that (or some version of that, with perhaps another rabbinical school substituted) to be said about me. This wasn’t the beginning of my decision to apply to rabbinical school, as I had already been thinking seriously about it (as much as two or three years before), but Elissa was certainly motivation to really get going.

I don’t know Elissa well, although I should. We have similar interests, are involved in some of the same organizations, and have many mutual friends. Unfortunately, what I know most about Elissa is that she is sick (which is of course not the sum of her identity).

Elissa was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma more than six years ago and has had two relapses, as well as a bone marrow transplant, and she’s been in the hospital for the past year dealing with complications from treatment. (This is information that she, her family, and others authorized by her family have shared publicly.) Elissa didn’t go to rabbinical school last summer, as she had planned. And that plan was a deferment from the year before. And I’m guessing that it’s probably not in the cards this summer, either (although, who knows?). It does seem like she has yet a struggle ahead of her.

In October, a friend of Elissa’s started a fundraising page for her and her family, as her stay in the hospital stretched into its eighth month. My friend Eve sent an email to our Jeremiah cohort about the effort, encouraging everyone to give: “Maybe some of you know her better than I, but, ever since meeting her back in the early 2000s, her work and life have been an inspiration.” (If you want to donate to this effort, you can do so here.) The page and its success are certainly a testament to the impact that Elissa has had on so many people. As the page’s creator wrote in the introduction:

If you are here, it is because you know and love Elissa Froman. You know the impact she has had on the people lucky enough to surround her, you are those people. Or maybe you know of her. You know of her advocacy work, her commitment to community, social justice, civil rights, and making the world a better place.

The morning that Eve sent her email, my classmate Lisa (also a former D.C.-er and friend of Elissa) led the Torah service at school. I also happened to be at the front of the room because I had an aliyah (the honor of saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading). As we sang mi sheberiach (the prayer for healing that is usually said in the middle of the Torah service), we shared with each other later that we had both been thinking about Elissa. All of this is to say that her presence is far-reaching.

And if you need even more evidence of Elissa’s awesomeness, watch this video that her friends made for her 29th birthday.

A year before Eve sent her email, to the day, Elissa wrote the last post that appears on her blog, where she’s chronicled her battle with cancer and her plans to go to rabbinical school. (By the way, you should read all of her blog. It is touching and heartbreaking and funny and honest and all the things that make a blog worth reading.) That last post was also written mere days after she spoke on Yom Kippur. In it, Elissa reflects on the five years since her diagnosis and expresses hope for the next five years, during which she was to finish her rabbinical school education.

It’s obviously painful to read in retrospect. I met with Elissa shortly after she wrote the post. We had coffee in the middle of the day, and I excitedly told her about my first visit to a rabbinical school and my plans for more visits and applications. And she shared with me her hopes for her rabbinate. We talked about how great it would be to one day be colleagues with similar interests, working as rabbis for social justice organizations.

Elissa’s been on my mind recently, and not just because I told the story of my journey to the rabbinate. Elissa’s sister recently sent an update on her progress — as she does regularly — to friends of Froman. And as many of you know, last semester (my first in rabbinical school) was very challenging for me, emotionally and spiritually. While I don’t think I’ve ever treated this experience flippantly, I always want to remember that first and foremost I am able to have this experience. This is a blessing and a privilege.

So Elissa, I’ll go to rabbinical school for both of us — until you join me.

UPDATE: Elissa Froman passed away on Friday, March 22, 2013 (11 Nisan 5773). May her memory be always for a blessing.

You can make a gift in her honor to the National Council of Jewish Women, her longtime employer.

happy first birthday

On Tuesday No Power in the ‘Verse turned one! I started this blog in the midst of applying to rabbinical school, and I am now trying to finish up my first semester. In that time, I’ve written 63 posts — more than my goal of once a week! Thank you, dear reader(s?), for accompanying me on this journey.

where the magic happens

where the magic happens; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Some of my favorite posts:

My most popular post (because, I think, my husband shared it on Facebook) was about my being forced to think about what makes a marriage.

I continue to enjoy writing posts about the books I read, but those don’t seem to garner many readers. But that’s okay: They, like this blog in general, are first and foremost for me.

This space is proof that writing is a very effective form of therapy.

survivor

holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

death of a mensch

On Monday I woke up thinking about him, a man I never knew — and didn’t even consider the existence of until last week.

On Sunday I attended the funeral of the father-in-law of the rabbi who taught the b’nai mitzvah class I completed in D.C. last month. Her in-laws are local, and since I consider the rabbi one of my mentors and one of the reasons I decided to go to rabbinical school, I — along with a classmate who also knew her in her past job — made the drive to a small town outside of Boston to be a part of the mitzvah of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead.

His death on July 4 was a random accident, one so terrible that the rabbi, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people I know, just shook her head when I saw her: “There’s nothing to say.”

There certainly isn’t much to say about his death, although the rabbi who presided over the ceremony did a yeoman’s job. He took to task the chief of police who had declared the accident “an act of G-d.” “Oh, really?” he rejoined scathingly. “That is not G-d.” And then he cautioned the large crowd that allowed only standing room in the sanctuary by the time the service started, “Before you ask, ‘Why?’, I ask you to consider whether there is any answer to that question that you would find satisfactory.”

There was certainly, though, very much to say about his life. From his obituary: “Loved nature, music, writing short stories, studying Torah, discussing politics, dancing with [his wife], and the Red Sox. His goodness and love will be missed.”

The service started with the synagogue’s cantor, who had known him and his wife since she began her job at the congregation. (They were involved in selecting the rabbi as well.) Next was his sister, then his son (my rabbi’s husband), then his daughter. And then his wife.

His son talked about how his father had taught him how to be a father. The rabbi and her husband have two children, and he recalled how much joy his father had gotten out of being a grandfather. And he sounded like the best kind of father and grandfather. The son recalled, “Dad could do anything. Wrote down the wrong gate and missed your flight? Let dad know: he’ll fix it. Don’t understand how student loans work? Ask dad: he’ll explain them. Get lost on the way to an important meeting? Call dad: he”ll get you there.”

A heartbreakingly young woman, his daughter talked about all of her many childhood activities that her dad never missed: Practices, performances, meets, competitions. In school he stayed up late with her the night before a paper was due in case she needed help breaking through writer’s block. She ended up in technology, the same field as his, and she spoke fondly their attending a recent conference together. There he introduced her to a colleague as his daughter; later, the man found her again and said, “When your father introduced you, I didn’t realize that you are actually his daughter. I thought he was saying that you were like a daughter, that he was your mentor.” She recalled at the service, “The colleague wasn’t wrong. He was my father, but he was also my mentor.”

Last was his wife, who was unbelievable. And by that I mean that I almost couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying because she was so unexpectedly poised at a moment when everyone around her, including people who hadn’t even known him, were sobbing. She shared how they had met, in college: two atheist, anti-Jewish Jews. They bonded over activism and late night philosophical talks, but, although she wasn’t all that interested in marriage, she didn’t want to move in with him if they were unmarried. “I told him that I didn’t understand that. If two people wanted to commit to one another, they should just do it, go all the way.” And five months after they met, he asked her to marry him on bended knee and with a toy ring with a green stone (which she promptly dropped, losing the stone, as soon as he handed it to her). So at ages 18 and 19, they were married, in a Jewish ceremony to satisfy their parents — and one entirely in Hebrew “so that we couldn’t understand all the stuff about G-d.”

I wish there had been time to hear more about their journey together from kids to having grandkids, from rebels to pillars of the community, from G-d denying to G-d embracing. But what followed next was well worth that omission.

His wife explained that she had asked people from various points in his life to speak about him because what she had known about him was not all there was to know about him. We then heard from a childhood friend and one from his young adult years, then from a member of the synagogue’s men’s group that he founded, and from a colleague. We heard about his mischievousness, his reflections on Torah, and a vacation dinner in a nice restaurant that ended with his young son covered in spaghetti and chocolate ice cream. A woman from a job or two ago said that after several people had left the company, they committed to getting together for dinner every few months to stay in touch. She had been in charge of scheduling those dinners, and he was always the hardest one to nail down. But, she added, after hearing that day what others had to say about him and his commitment to his family, friends, and community, she understood why he was always so busy.

I loved his wife’s tribute, her acknowledgement that she doesn’t own the memories of him, that all of the community carries pieces of him — then and now. This is how remembrance stays alive, and I am blessed to now be a bearer of his life and death as well.

And then she began to talk about the night he died. They had attended a James Taylor concert, just one of the activities that had begun to form the shape of their (soon-to-be) retired life. They sat on the lawn and talked about their ballroom dancing lessons and their financial future. The last song of the concert, she informed us, was Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” And the cantor joined her at the podium, and they invited everyone to sing. And when we weren’t spirited enough, his wife admonished us to sing louder and to clap harder. It was hard to do through my tears. But she just laughed and clapped and sang.

In the end, she concluded by thanking him for their 43 years together, declaring, “I regret nothing.”

“I regret nothing.” How many of us can say that about our relationships? About our lives? About anything? How many of us can say that, whether we actually don’t experience regret, or whether we have made peace with our mistakes?

I just want to stop. And thank you, baby.

How sweet it is to be loved by you.

distopiae

orphan master's sonI woke up on Sunday to a cold, rainy day, nixing my plans to do the first round of planting in my garden. Instead, I stayed inside and read all day. After I finished Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son — a novel about a young man’s many careers under the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il — I took a quick walk to the D.C. public library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial branch to pick up a book on hold for me, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the YA genre, I haven’t been purposefully avoiding the novel — as I generally did with Harry Potter, for instance, the faux Latin of which set my teeth on edge. (I initially experienced a similar dread with the name of the country in The Hunger Games, Panem, but that’s where the Latin ended — and that reference was A) actually Latin and B) appropriate to the circumstance.)

I’d heard great things about Collins’s novel from people whose opinions I trust, and I even gave the book to my sister-in-law for Christmas last year based on those opinions. It was the hype around the movie — and the racism by its purported fans that it engendered — that finally piqued my curiosity. And the book was worth the wait: I read it straight through, finishing in a few hours by Sunday night.

My first reaction as I started reading, though, was, “Didn’t I just finish a novel about a central state government that tries to control its citizens in a society of a reality at odds with ideology?” And so I had, and so here I am, reviewing the two seemingly disparate novels together.

They certainly give each other a run for their money in terms of being disturbing — but also in being compelling. Many of the books I’ve been reading lately have managed to be suspenseful despite telling a story with a foregone conclusion (as for example here and here), and The Orphan Master’s Son was a complete break with that trend. I really had no idea what was going to happen next, much as the hapless denizens of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the book. (Well, I had the tiniest inkling from the outset, but I had no clue how Johnson could possibly get there.) Pak Jun Do, the orphan who isn’t, climbs through his impossibly regimented society, going from the backwater Chongjin to the capital Pyongyang as army tunneler, state kidnapper, naval intelligence officer, and finally the prestigious Minister of Prison Mines. Through the 1982-esque propaganda that works indefatigably to make the “Dear Leader” seem like the greatest leader of the greatest nation on earth, it takes a lot of blood and torture to get Jun Do across the country and its class divide; Johnson’s work is not for the squeamish.

The Hunger Games also manages suspense despite the fact that a reader has to expect that a narrator of a to-the-death battle royal is likely going to make it out alive. The Buffy-like protagonist Katniss Everdeen makes a journey similar to that of Jun Do, from her home in District 12, the furthest outpost of the country Panem (which rose from the ruins of North America), to its capital. And she also takes on a new identity, as a competitor in the annual death match.

Side note: Regarding the “controversy” of casting black actors in the movie roles, I just about burst out laughing when Katniss explains, on her train trip to the Capitol, that it “was built in a place once called the Rockies.” I have family in Denver and spent many a summer there and environs, and my cousin and I regularly remark on how homogeneously white Colorado is. (Of course, that reminds me of one of my favorite Tracy Jordan lines ever.) Panem isn’t that different from North America, which means that people of color in the future probably live in the worst parts of that country, too. So astute readers shouldn’t have been at all shocked that a contestant from an outlying district, furthest from the prosperous Capitol, would be black. (Based on the book, the real surprise should have been that Katniss is played by a white actress, although I suppose not really in the whitewashing of Hollywood casting.) Then again, readers who can’t understand that “satiny brown skin” denotes a person of color are pretty much idiots.

Collins’s story is a little easier to take, despite that the fact that it features teenagers killing each other for sport. This is partly because Katniss is an unequivocal hero, pure in heart and deed: Collins carefully constructs the narrative so that Katniss kills only indirectly or with complete justification. The reader has to root for her, especially against the backdrop of the depravity of the other competitors — and of the society itself; indeed, Panem’s televised games were ostensibly established as punishment for rebellion against the Capitol, but it seems clear that entertainment was just as important a factor. Likewise, the extreme control in the DPRK stems from banal pandering to Kim’s ego, and Jun Do’s battering at the whims of the Dear Leader is in the main heartbreaking (although it stands to reason that a character in a “grown-up” novel might be more nuanced.)

Both societies are of course meant to be horrifying. But there are uncomfortable similarities with our own. Collins makes this clear by locating Panem in the not-so-distant future; she’s also stated that she drew inspiration for the novel while channel surfing, switching between a competition-based piece of reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, when the two “began to blur in this very unsettling way.”

The hallmark of Johnson’s DPRK is the contrast between what is said and what is done — which dissonance I’ve been thinking about in the U.S. recently, especially as it relates to motherhood. Pundit Hilary Rosen caused a firestorm a few weeks ago with comments about Ann Romney’s work as a homemaker. Taking the cake for dumbest “controversy” of the election season so far, Rosen’s statement and its aftermath led to an endless series of inane responses lionizing the work of mothers (as if Rosen, a parent of two, were somehow unaware of her own role). But the truth is that we as a society don’t in any way value motherhood — or more accurately, all mothers — in the way we love to claim we do, as Katha Pollitt so trenchantly articulates. The doublespeak on this and many other issues do the Dear Leader proud.

blue nights

I was drawn into Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, immediately. She begins by writing about a season changing from spring into summer into fall:

To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.

I’ve only read one other Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that preceded Blue Nights. Tragically, the former is about the death of her husband in 2003; the latter, the death of her daughter two years later. It’s hard to escape the fact that few have unexpectedly suffered more than Didion.

In both books, the difficult subject matter is made easier by her beautiful writing. Her prose is positively poetic. I read The Year of Magical Thinking weeks after the death of my beloved grandfather, and it helped me immensely in dealing with his death. The book also touched on her daughter’s struggle, who was in a coma at the time of her father’s death (but managed to recover long enough to attend the funeral). When it was published, I was eager, as odd as it sounds, to read the second part of Didion’s saga. Her recent experience is heartbreaking, and accompanying her on her journey through grief is comforting.

But if Blue Nights drew me in right away, I had a hard time finishing it. In some ways, what Didion describes in both books is universal: With grief come questions. How did the illness actually cause death? Did the deceased anticipate the end? How did I fail my loved one? How could I have made the time we had left more meaningful? Why didn’t I . . .? And no one articulates these hard questions better than she.

In other ways, Didion mistakes her experience as universal. Toward the end of the book, she contemplates the suddenness of change: “One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day’s mail with real enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney’s and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.” The general sentiment rings true, to be sure, but the details that are supposed to concretize her state of mind are alienating. Didion uses the word “we” — but her world isn’t one that I recognize.

Indeed, her two works that I’ve read are full of this kind of name and label dropping: Payard and Bouvier des Flandres, Bendel’s and The Bistro, Minton dinner plates and I. Magnin soap, Lilly Pulitzer shifts and Donald Brooks dresses, David Webb bracelets and Christian Louboutin shoes. I don’t even know what most of those words mean. And it goes on. Tasha (Natasha Richardson). Nick (Dominick Dunne). She spends two pages listing the (presumably very fancy) hotels that she and her daughter stayed in on her book tours. She even identifies something as banal as a kitchen implement: a “Craftsman knife.”

I probably would have dismissed these details had they gone unremarked. I’ve come to think of them as window-dressing, ornaments whose specificity probably connote something deeply meaningful for Didion (indeed, a photograph of Sophia Loren at a fashion show in 1968 prompts a lengthy ode to a past era in her life) but which for me are almost meaningless. I feel deeply for Didion’s losses, and these references, signifying wealth above all, give me hope. Whatever else she is — bereft, grieving, heartbroken, broken — she’s not poor. She has the resources to give herself the space to heal. It’s one of the benefits of privilege.

But Didion is angry about this label, and she breaks into a defensive address of the reader halfway through Blue Nights: “‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.”

But she’s wrong. Just wrong. Wrong, full stop. It’s hard to imagine a more privileged type of person in the U.S. than a wealthy white Hollywood family. Didion’s daughter undoubtedly suffered terribly at the end of her life — and, to hear Didion tell, struggled with debilitating mental issues when she was alive. And she did so in a life of privilege. With all due respect to Didion’s experience, health problems, even fatal ones, don’t negate privilege.

I found this refusal to acknowledge her daughter’s — and by extension her own — privilege so troubling that I had to put the book down for several months. I was recently able to finish it, and I’m glad I did. Ultimately, I do recommend the book — how can I not love a book whose author describes a scene of her daughter’s walking to school as “beautiful as anything I’d ever seen”? — but I also recommend skipping chapter 15. Didion should have skipped it, too.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,966 other followers