Tuesday, November 1, 2011

the inner shlemiel

Tonight I went to see a documentary "Laughing in the Darkness" about the Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem who created the character Tevvye, the milkman; the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was based on his stories. The story of Sholem Aleichem's life encompasses much more than his biography -- it's the story of eastern European Jewry and its transformation or attempt at transformation into contemporary life, particularly American life. It's the cultural clash between a very provincial people (not simply a religion but a culture) living in a remote part of the world (the pale of Russia for the most part) and Modern Times. When I write this, it occurs to me that the culture clash was not peculiar to Jews  -- Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Hungarian -- most cultures experienced the same confusion, the same loss of identity as Jews which is why Charlie Chaplin could satirize it so potently. We all had to become something very different than what we'd been in our effort to become American, to fit in to the U.S of A. (Some cultures like Native Americans are still traumatized by the effort at transformation.) And for some, the transformation was never complete which is why we still have movie-makers like Woody Allen or a movie like the Coen Brothers "A Serious Man" -- which humorously describe this culture clash that continues to occur generation after generation. That feeling of being ill-equipped to fit it, of even wondering whether fitting-in merits the loss involved? What is that loss?  It's a loss of a certain humanity, of accepting human foibles, of not needing or even wanting to measure up to the bar of financial success or any kind of "success" -- it's the right be a schlemiel, a slacker, a low-achiever -- and that being okay. In "Fiddler on the Roof" Tevvye sings, "If I were a rich man..." The original Sholem Aleichem story was "If I was a Rothchild..."but Tevvye is a milkman; he's not ever going to be a Rothschild and frankly we need more Tevvye's than Rothschilds, don't we? The truth is not all of us want to spend our lives becoming rich and famous. We don't aspire to be Bill Gates or even Steve Jobs. And yet we live in a culture that constantly extolls achievement, that presses us to achieve, achieve and achieve so more...no wonder so many people are depressed; no wonder so many people feel not good enough. I was actually asked that question today in an interview about a book of mine that's just been published. How does it feel to be a writer who keeps writing even if the path is not the Pulitzer (that's not how the question was phrased but that's what I thought the interviewer meant). I was kind of surprised, but I attempted to say: If you like to write and you do write and you have any success at all, like publication by a local publisher -- hey, that's great!!! And I was greatly cheered by seeing Sholem Aleichem pull out his notebook every chance he got, just to write, cause that's what you do, that's what feels good, that's who you are whether or not it's recognized or acclaimed. You do what you do because you're claiming your humanity -- and that's the goal. That's always been the goal.

The Better Divorce

I just read an article in the NY Times about the "good divorce" --  because the writer is so pleased her divorce was better than her parents. A lot better. My generation didn't know how to get a divorce I suppose because we hadn't had parents who divorced, so we didn't know how. When I went to high school in the '60's there was one student, as far as I knew, in the entire high school whose mother was divorced. It was a big deal. The girl's identifying characteristic, so to speak. People had parents (as one learned later) who drank. "Admit it, everyone knew," said one of my classmates later. "My father was a lush." There were parents who were skirt-chasers, who molested their children (again we hear of it 50 years later); who were mentally ill (those kids lived in total isolation, fear, shame, anguish); parents who argued, threw dishes at one another, and so on....But mostly the Boomer Generation had parents who stuck together. Unless they lived in California which, as far as we were concerned, was another country. A country of divorced parents and wild kids.

I only write this because I personally had so little direct contact with divorce in my life (my husband and I have managed to stay married a very long time) until my son -- already a father -- separated from his girlfriend. I had no idea of the impact on our grandchild who was only one at the time. I assumed he would be okay. After all he was growing up mostly with separated parents so that was the world he knew. But I was wrong. From the very beginning, it was clear he relished having his parents together. On the few occasions when his Mom and Dad were in the same room -- holidays, for example -- he so delighted in the moment. "Look, Mom, there's Daddy." he'd say with joy and wonder. Now he simply misses the parent he's not with. We have a photograph from the one Christmas the three were together. Actually it's a triptych with one photograph of my son, the Dad, on the left, a picture of the baby with Mom in the middle and a picture of Mom on the right. The picture hangs in the bathroom, over the toilet. Every time my grandchild stands on the toilet after peeing so I can help him wash his hands in the adjacent sink, he studies that picture. I study it too. We both are sad for a moment together. We both wish that little family had stuck together. But my "daughter-in-law" (that's what I consider her) is like many young women of that generation. Her parents (the Boomer generation) had a horrendous divorce when she was in her teens. It was an awful experience in every respect. She seems determined to circumvent that emotional upheaval by not committing to marriage in the first place. I don't entirely blame her. My son was hugely immature when they got together. At the time he didn't have a job, didn't take care of the house; he was largely irresponsible. No wonder she kicked him out. I believe, of course, that he could have grown into the responsibility motivated by his love of being a father. But she didn't give it time to happen. Maybe she saw herself as forestalling the eventual agony. But the agony is there anyway whether it comes early or late...And it's especially present for our grandchild. Of course we all pitch in, both parents and grandparents, to care for him and make sure he feels loved at every moment. But his missing, his sense of disappointment that both his beloved parents aren't present in his life at all times, is palpable. That bit of sadness is woven into who he is just like his marvelous sense of humor, his huge imagination, his tenderness. No there is no good divorce, I don't believe -- not when children are involved. There's simply a "better divorce". It's not simply that math scores slip (as national studies seem to indicate) -- it's the child's sense of an intact universe, a sense of completeness, of wholeness that's lacking. That's what our grandchild has to compensate for, has to struggle to achieve. Maybe this early separation beats the other sort -- it's surely better than a hostile, violent marriage.  But I wish my grandchild had the best of everything ( not materially but emotionally) and that's not possible when his parents are split. I honestly believe he experiences a core psychic split that will heal in some fashion, but will always exist...like invisible scar tissue. So, yes, there are better divorces but, for children, not good divorces.