Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Goodbye to All

The sun was setting in Harbor Town. I gazed at the Mississippi and was struck by an unprecedented sense of nostalgia. In a mental film, I recounted all of the times I’d been down to the river. I took note of who I first went with, who was there during the middle visits, and who remained by my side until the final sunsets. Soon after the film reached its conclusion, my mind began to drift aimlessly. I recalled dressing up like Johnny Bravo in the living room of my first home. I replayed the night I spent sleeping on Avi’s floor because I was too afraid to sleep in solitude. I felt the pain of leaving 415 S. Yates again, though once was more than enough. In a flood of memories ranging from happy to sad, touching to shallow, worthy of lifelong remembrance and those I want desperately to forget, I was rudely awoken by the painful but inevitable realization that the first stage of my life - the only stage I’ve known - is reaching its imminent conclusion. All that I’ve known will cease to be as it is, and all that will be is still a faint expectation in my mind. It’s not until now, on the precipice of departure, that I find the time to reflect on the past 18 years spent here in Memphis. 

It would take a novel to adequately elaborate upon the lessons I’ve learned throughout my 18 years of existence, but I’ll settle for a relatively short blogpost. 

For the longest time, I felt out of place in Memphis. I wasn’t particularly religious, and I felt like an outcast for that lack of concern. It made it no easier to have a drug addicted mother whose actions gave birth to endless swirls of rumors and judgements. Suffice it to say, it was difficult growing up feeling as though I didn’t belong. 

As time wore on and I began to realize more about my life, I found that my reality was not the most pleasant one. In retrospect, I can now hypothesize that I was perhaps mildly depressed, and certainly severely miserable, for a significant stretch of my pre-adolescent years. Come 7th grade, I was torn between two broken homes, struggling still to find my place. In 8th grade, things seemed to change for the better, but only on the surface. I was no healthier internally. I had yet to realize the extent of the emotional baggage that was impeding my growth, but I found an almost fake sense of happiness and let myself see the world through eyes that, for once, weren’t scowling. 

But such a pseudo-happiness has an expiration date. Its conclusion came with the onset of high school, the most transformative period of my life thus far. During my freshman year, I grew to resent Judaism, as I felt trapped within a bubble that allowed little to no exploration. I remained deeply hurt, but unaware of the severity of my pain. Sophomore year brought a newfound emphasis on academic success, but the same internal struggles. Though I had learned how to better cope with the after-effects of my mother’s addiction, I was subconsciously waiting for something, someone, to push me in front of my personal mirror so that I could see myself and my demons for what they truly were. 

Due in large part to a very special person who gave me that necessary shove, Junior year has proved to be the most crucial and life changing thus far. In it, I took three steps back, reflected on my life, and committed myself to ridding my psyche of the aforementioned demons. I devoted myself to introspection and change. I came out of 11th grade far stronger, far more prepared to embark on the rest of my independent life. 

And now, here I am, after spending Senior year feeling happy and emotionally healthy. Here I am, preparing to take the plunge into the next stage of my life. Here I am, reflecting on all that made me the person that I am today. 

I chronicle my development not to elicit sympathy. Rather, I do it to find relief. Beyond that, I do it so that I can expound on that development and attribute portions of it to those who have utterly and eternally transformed my life. There are so many people that I owe the world to, but unfortunately I have only one world to give. Thus, we’ll again have to settle for a relatively short blogpost. 

In the growth of my friendship with Asher and Eli, I found security and trust. In my inconsistent world, I felt I had two constants that served often as my backbone. I’ll never forget the time spent with those two - my best friends - and I find myself nearly in tears at the thought of leaving the city in which so many lifelong memories were made. Though I’ll be physically removed, I know that those memories will live, and I know that those friends will be with me well into the next stages of my life. 

In Rachel I found someone in whom I could confide. She was the first person I felt entirely comfortable opening up to about my past. And though we drifted apart with time, I’ll always feel close to her in some capacity. I wish I could find the words to thank her for her friendship and kindness, but it seems impossible. Though she wasn’t with me in body, she certainly was in spirit and mind. That made my Memphis experience immeasurably easier. 

In Shira I found a motherly friend, a kind soul, and a genuinely considerate person. Of the many people who have come and gone in my life, I know that she will forever be one who stays. No matter the time spent apart, no matter the distance, I know for certain that she and I will be close until the end of our days. 

In the Perls I found so much. I found an unprecedented love for religion. I found the motivation to explore, to question, to embark on intellectual pursuits. I found redemption, renewal, sanity. I found two people who care far more than people note, and I found two people who will forever mean more to me than I could adequately express. Their departure pains me, even now, because it leaves me fearful for the future of the school in which I spent almost my entire life. And though that fear will likely subside with time, I know that their collective influence never will. They’ve left an indelible mark on me, and have significantly contributed to my development. 

In Rabbi Lubetski I found a friend. A principal, sure. But a friend above all. I’ll never forget the disappointment in his eyes when I was suspended freshman year, and I’ll never forget the sadness that disappointment brought me. He and I developed a unique rapport in my time at the CYHSB, and the impact he’s had on me will never fade. 

In Bryan, Isaac, and Jason I found friends who gave me faith that people at the CYSHB care. I found friends with whom I could discuss politics, faith, and life at large. I found a sense of indescribable appreciation. They are three peers, debaters, but, most importantly, three friends. 

In Tyler, Elliot, Adam, and Adam I found that no matter the denominational difference, no matter the ideological conflict, and no matter the opposing religious beliefs, a group of teenagers with common interests are capable of looking past those distinguishing details for the sake of appreciating each others’ cores. In them I found an entirely new life perspective. I found a group of friends who welcomed me with open arms and changed my life’s course. Though we’ve been close for merely two years, I know that they will be in my life for many to come. 

In Emily I found unconditional appreciation in its truest form. I found friendship in the deepest sense of the word. She served as the recipient of my venting on more than one occasion, and for that I’m forever in debt. To say goodbye to a friend like Emily is indescribably difficult, but I’m comforted by a feeling of confidence that she’ll be a part of my life for quite some time. 

In Shelby I found a mother. A mother who picked me up on time. A mother who treated me as her own, fed me until I was full, and ensured that I had all that I needed. I found a woman who cared for me without expecting anything in return. She was, in many ways, an angel to me, for I’m unsure of how I could have survived my elementary school days without her watchful and considerate eye. 

In Pam, Sandra, and Amy I found surrogate mothers. I found strong women who showed me what it means to care for your family and sacrifice personal interests for the sake of the household. Those women changed me for the far better, and I owe them more than I could ever repay. 

In Hallie I found hope. I found a newfound belief in love. She gave me the best year of my life, and the memories we shared in various parts of Memphis will never leave me. She and her family welcomed me with open arms and showed me what it’s like to live in a healthy home. Their collective influence has altered my life’s course, and will be with me when it’s time to raise a family of my own. 

Though I only mentioned a few, so many people have touched my life during the last 18 years. In that time, I’ve learned a great deal about life. However, considering my age, I understand that what I know now will likely change in the years to come. That being said, I still feel it necessary to publish what I’ve learned so that perhaps you, readers, can share in my realizations. 

First and foremost, I’ve learned that life isn’t at all what many expect. Those delusional enough to expect rainbows and butterflies each morning will have an inexplicably difficult time trudging through the sometimes difficult, sometimes mundane day-to-day. Life places obstacles before you, and to hurdle such obstacles is an ongoing process. One does not jump then stop jumping. One must learn to face challenges, rise above petty conflict, and do what’s best for their sanity. Life is a beautiful thing, but it is not kind to all. And so is the reason why it’s so beautiful. With each hardship comes the possibility of triumph. With each failure comes the possibility of redemption. Though there will always be external influences trying desperately to infiltrate your internal being, you must fight tooth and nail to maintain your truest form. Only then will you be able to place your sanity before that of others. Sick people exist, and they will attempt to rope you into their miserable way of life. It’s within our power, though, to ensure that does not happen. 

I’ve learned that religion is difficult, confusing, but mind bogglingly beautiful. When my mother was sick, I wondered where God was. He seemed to ignore my calls for help, and gave me several reasons to doubt His existence. And yet, I couldn’t grasp the idea of a God-less world. As time wore on, I grew resentful of not only God, but organized Judaism. I felt that being forced to connect to a religion that I had several contentions with was irresponsible at best, and condemnable at worst. In all honesty, there were times when I was content with being entirely non-observant. There were times when I wanted to walk away from Judaism. But, by the grace of the God that I’ve grown to love, I stayed on a path, though an unconventional one, toward a Jewish future. Though I haven’t resolved all of the ideological conflicts I have with God and Judaism, I have reached a place in my religiosity where I feel compelled, independently, to learn more about the religion I so proudly affiliate with. 

I used to care about what people had to say about me. I was intensely sensitive to popular opinion. That sensitivity gave rise to a serious predicament considering the stigma with which my last name is associated. Being a Goldstein, I was pegged as an excessively aggressive trouble maker. For quite some time, I let others’ judgements damage my self-confidence. But the older I grew, the more I began to understand myself and the community in which I was raised. Sure, many people were kind and caring, eager to help me and my family in difficult times. But I also found that many people living in the Orthodox community of Memphis are vicious and childish. Many have no better use for their time than verbally assaulting others less fortunate or, in their eyes, less worthy of admiration. It took a considerable amount of time to see that I wasn’t the problem - they were. When I came to that realization, it became immeasurably easier to step into my own. I learned to be my unapologetic, unadulterated self. With that revived confidence came the ability to challenge popular opinion. The realization that I was not the problem gave me the voice to stand up and call out those who are. So to those remaining in this complex community, I urge you to realize that you are not being judged because you are inherently flawed; rather, you are being judged because those who judge you do so to make themselves feel superior. 

This community perplexes me. It’s purportedly devoted to a strong Orthodox school that’s intended to serve as the center of Memphis Orthodoxy. However, the actions of many reveal the paradox that is the debate surrounding the future of the Margolin Hebrew Academy. I’ve never felt so fearful for my alma mater’s fate as I do now. That fear can largely be attributed to the departure of the Perls and the Steins, but I owe it more to those who have chosen to challenge the very values upon which the school was founded. To ignore the school’s existential crisis for the sake of arguments on nuances is reprehensible. Now is the time to band together to ensure that there is a tomorrow for Orthodoxy in Memphis. Now is certainly not the time to push for a divide-and-conquer operation. Orthodox Jewry will soon die in Memphis if unity is not achieved. That is not an absurd prediction - it’s an absolute fact. 

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s okay to be different. I’m far different than the rest of my family members. I have different interests, different political beliefs, and I approach emotional expression differently. Though one may think those significant differences could lead to conflict, they only do when you allow them to. I’ve come to accept the approaches and opinions of others - so long as they don’t reflect utter ignorance - over the past several years, and that’s allowed me to better handle confrontations when they arise. We live in a society that places an absurd emphasis on superficiality and conformity, but that doesn’t mean we must neglect who we inherently are for the sake of fitting in. Though the status quo may seemingly leave us no choice but to conform, we are capable of reaching a place of self-confidence that allows us to feel comfortable and proud in our own skin. 

It feels like my world is ending, but I know this transition marks the beginning of the rest of my life. To leave home is terrifying, yet exciting all at once. I’m eager to spread my wings and delve into interests that I couldn’t fully engage in here. And while I’m on the verge of making Waltham my home, I know that I will never feel as fortunate and comfortable somewhere else as I do here, in Memphis. 

It’s with a heavy heart but high expectations that I say goodbye to you all, the people who have contributed to the man I’ve become. I know that bigger and better things are ahead of me, but I’ll never forget where I came from or who was there to guide me through my growth. 

So, the sun was setting in Harbor Town. The sun is setting on the first stage of my life. It’s time for me to move on, but not at the expense of forgetting why I am the way that I am. 

From the bottom of my heart,

Thank you.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Mirror

“It’s time to wake up,” whispered a soothing, almost undetectable voice. “It’s time to wake up for school.” 

Debbie’s eyes slowly opened. She looked around the room, but saw no one. And yet, the voice persisted. 

“It’s time to get dressed.”

With blurred vision, Debbie rolled onto her side and mustered up the strength to emerge from her bed. She had enjoyed an interruption-free sleep for the third straight night, a small victory to Debbie. As she inched toward the bathroom, she brushed her hands along her stomach. She felt her ribs protruding from her torso. 

“It’s time to look at yourself,” the voice said menacingly. “It’s time to stand before the mirror.” 

Debbie let out a yawn. She bathed and clothed herself in a way that seemed intentionally slow, perhaps to spite the voice that filled her head. Each time she would pass the mirror, she would avert her eyes, making sure to avoid a confrontation with the physical manifestation of the unrelenting voice. 

“I know what you’re doing. What’s the matter? You don’t want to see yourself today? Is that it?” The voice’s tone had shifted from soothing to virulent. 

Though Debbie had fought its influence for years, and had grown sadly accustomed to its perpetual badgering, she often found herself conceding victory to the maniacal voice embedded in her damaged psyche. No matter how determined her efforts, the voice almost always found a way to persuade her to bring it to life. It fed off of her misery, and its figure reflected Debbie’s perception of herself. 

She glanced at the mirror, but remained at an angle from which she could only see a reflection of the door. She felt helpless. Her body impulsively made its way before the mirror. Now, standing perfectly in front of her reflection, Debbie furiously closed her eyes. She searched for the inner strength to conquer the voice, her personal nemesis since the age of twelve.

“Open your eyes, Debbie. What’s the matter, you can’t stand to see me?” 

Feeling her strength subsiding, Debbie began to speak: “You are not me. Leave me alone! Please, stop!”

But to no avail. 

Her eyes shot open. Her jaw dropped instantaneously. The figure staring back at her was not her - she was sure of it. It was a monster. It was her mind urgently attempting to strip her of her sanity. But its gaze was so powerful. She couldn't look away. 

The voice only grew louder. “You don’t like what you see, do you?” 

Almost catatonic, tears began to well in Debbie’s eyes. Even through the liquid she could see the monster staring back at her. Its hair was greasy. Its stomach lined with rolls of fat. Its face was covered in unavoidable acne. But the figure in the mirror wasn’t crying. No, it was far past crying. You could see the pain in its eyes. A blatant physical indication of its misery seemed unnecessary. In its face, death was near. 

“Why don’t you just kill yourself? What is your life even worth?” 

Debbie looked away from the mirror and down at her wrist. It looked small, frail, even childlike. She reached for her cheek, but found that there was nothing to grab - only bone. She searched for her breasts, but they had been gone for years. She tried to internalize the rapid deterioration of her body, but her efforts were thwarted each time she gazed again at the figure.

Feeling she’d reached her tipping point, Debbie reached for the soap dispenser sitting beside her sink’s faucet. Drawing on her experience from her days as an athlete, a distant memory for Debbie at this point, she erratically cocked her arm back and, with all of the might her tiny frame could offer, threw the metal dispenser at the mirror. To her dismay, the object failed to so much as crack her foe. 

“You can’t win. Even if you break this mirror, you’ll always be you. You’ll always be too fat and too unstable."

Debbie picked the dispenser up and launched it at the mirror again. It anticlimactically bounced off and landed on the floor. She tried again. Again. Again. Tears began streaming down her face. Her neck’s veins bulged from her skin. With spit dripping from the sides of her lips, she finally yelled, “Why won’t you leave me alone?! What do you want from me?!” 

She sunk to the floor, crying profusely, unable to gather her thoughts. The voice grew louder, but its words became increasingly unclear. A swirl of deafening noises filled her head. A sharp pain began to materialize in her stomach. Her breathing grew faster, her heart rate skyrocketed, her courage was rapidly disappearing. 

Finally, she threw her body on top of the toilet and vomited. Nothing but stomach acid slid through her cracked and yellow teeth. 

The voice was quiet, but even in silence it relished its victory.