7 Years

A pensive moment with Zoe.

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After seven years with us, we have made the horribly painful decision to find Zoe a new home. When we first rescued Zoe he was sad, dirty, and quite frankly a bit of a monster to deal with. Over the course of many years of patient affection, Zoe has become the sweet bird I think he always wanted to be. However, during this time he and Gandhi, our conure whom we adopted before Zoe came into the picture, clashed many times. A few of those events required medical assistance.

This week Zoe and Gandhi again managed to get past me and fight again, even though we separate them and stick to a very careful routine in the house. Zoe and Gandhi just aren’t compatible, even after all this time, and we can no longer risk their safety. The pain and worry sat with me one last time in the vet’s office as Gandhi was treated for his latest battle wounds (he’s fine and bounced back hours later) but I cannot do this anymore. I can’t risk my baby’s safety, even if it means seeing my other baby off to a place more suited to handle his particular needs.

And those needs are many. Zoe is my beautiful baby who just a few years ago would viciously attack and bite anyone for any reason because of his improper socialization and whatever traumas he faced in his life. We still do not know much about his past other than that he was shuffled from house to house, having been neglected for some time and finally ending up in foster care before we rescued him and brought him home. The last seven years have seen him make friends with multiple people and calm down into a sweet baby who spends hours a day on my shoulder. However, this new, intense bonding meant that Zoe regarded the other living creatures in his home—Alex and Gandhi—as competition for my affection. For years he has lashed out at Alex who has been such a good sport, loving his sweet Zoe even though he has only managed to hold him for more than a few seconds a handful of times. No longer can we draw an imaginary line down the middle of our home trying to appease two sides. No longer will my baby Zoe live with a family that cannot give him exactly what he needs.

I have spent the last two days crying. Nobody is dying or (seriously) injured, but I truly feel like death. At this point I’m not convinced I will ever be okay, but the most important thing is that both Zoe and Gandhi live their fullest lives in safety and joy.

I will miss my baby who greets me in the morning with sweet sounds from his cage. I will miss his sweet breath after eating techina and nigella snacks. I will miss sharing my bagels with him. I will miss his ways of saying “I love you” as only parrots can. I will miss finding molted feathers in my bed and in my shoes. I will miss his screams and his tantrums. I will miss his sweet “woohoo” that breaks my heart and fills me with love every time he looks at me from his cage with those big, beautiful brown eyes. I will miss whistling back and forth all day. I will miss watching his eyes flutter as he naps on his perch in the shower until it’s his turn to go under the water, flapping his wings and bowing forward, enjoying (and sometimes hating) his personal waterfall.

Yoga with Zoe. You've never truly had a workout until you've tried Zo-ga.

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I will miss the weight on my shoulder. Two hundred and ninety grams. I will miss the way he chews the collar from my shirts and the way he can decimate a seam in seconds. I will miss his kisses. The way he preens my beard and licks my cheek. I will miss singing with him and playing games and getting louder and louder until Alex and I burst out in laughter and hurry to calm him down before the neighbors complain. Ninety decibels of screaming I will miss. Ringing bells and chewing toys I will miss.

I will miss his sweet little feet, how they are so warm and the perfect size to wrap around your fingers when you’re sad. I will miss the way he licks tears from my face and how he lays his beak on my nose. I will miss feeding him almonds and singing “Einayim Yerukot,” the song we play every night as he goes to bed. I will miss covering him before he closes his eyes and waking him with a, “Good morning, babies!” as I enter the room.

Now I will begin my morning with the singular, “baby.” I will wake Gandhi every morning and love him as much as I loved two birds. I will dream of Zoe—probably mostly nightmares at first—and miss him every single day. This pain will never subside.

We realized months ago that we would never be approved to adopt a baby with our special-needs bird in the house. He’s capable of such damage, and if you’ve seen my hands, you know that skin-piercing bites are a regular occurrence with an Amazon parrot, even when he likes you. Rather than encounter the inevitability of a more painful future separation, we have decided that now is the time. Zoe is a well-adjusted, happy bird, so different than the sad, damaged baby we met years ago. We just didn’t know at the time that Zoe’s place in our home was that of a foster bird. And now he’s ready for his next home and his next journey.

The bird in the mirror. A moment of self-reflection during the High Holy Days.

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I love Zoe with a love that will never not hurt. I feel so broken and while I know this is the right decision for Zoe (and all of us) I cannot help but feel that I failed the baby I rescued in the first place. I struggle to look him in the eyes without bawling. I am jealous of the life he will live with his next flock. And I am comforted by the knowledge that this bird who has become the loving Zoe I know will be loved by everyone he meets.

In the next couple of weeks Zoe will leave us. Until then I will continue to slowly fall apart. And I will remember this love forever.

Spring, a story of self

Excerpt from my journal on Shavuot.

Like clipping the top of a shit pile with a lawn mower on a sticky day. The discomfort of grass shrapnel sticking to your skin, flowing its way down the babbling brook of sweat that collects in the small of your back, feels like a panic attack. The smell of lawn still makes my nose itch, years and miles away from this cold train on what promises to be a rainy day in upstate New York. I have not had to mow the lawn in a decade, but today as I avoided the banks of clipped grass in hopes of keeping my dress shoes at least clean if not dry, I thought about mowing the lawn. I felt the unease of this semester and the treif feeling of not having yet completed my final assignments beginning to settle as I tried to steer my mind from the thought of having to use the leaf blower to clean off the sidewalk.

I have begun unpacking my anxieties. So often my fears take the form of clingy discomfort—a sort of mental claustrophobia to which I subject myself because I can’t help but rehearse disaster in my head. I carry my tension in my jaw and from there it radiates from my shoulders to the small of my back. This semester it rendered me nearly immobile some days, unable to leave my bed for lack of strength. I have learned to live with the idea of my anxiety, but I have yet to tame the cacophony, to conduct it from the stage. Rather I find myself pacing the aisles of the theatre as the band drones on.

The clouds above the mountain look something violent. How appropriate a shroud above their freshly-greened peaks on this day for remembering the flashes of Sinai. The sun shines between the threads of dark gray and a slice of the mountain drinks of its cascade, long sips as the earth rotates, until the green is cast in shadow again.

I imagine beneath the canopy of oak and evergreen a congregation of wildlife receiving their own Torah. They enjoy their moment of sun and return to the doings of forestry: the daily demands of growth and life, of dew and death, sun and dust. Kaddish! They exclaim, and mumbling in the drizzle, they conclude their prayers.

— — — — — — — — — — — —

The intoxicating dizziness of a hot summer room is the legacy left behind by southern revivals and cult leaders. The condensation streams down a glass of iced tea onto the coffee table where a stack of pamphlets once announced the second coming. The parlor where a woman once fainted from heat and woolen gown—overcome with the spirit, no doubt—is the way I make sense of hardwood floors and craftsman decor. This fictional room in my head is the memory of days spent in sunny spaces avoiding the harshness of Texas summer. The buzzy way your head feels after a day in the sun when your back finally relaxes into a soft couch is the pinpricking of my skin by tiny drops of rain the day before June arrives to Brooklyn. Here the days are less hot, but we achieve the romantic warmth of a Texas summer thanks to our large windows’ northern exposure.

While I miss the boozy feeling of the sun urging you to take a nap, the gleam of distant sun reflecting off the towers of south Manhattan is reminiscent of the sun of my childhood. Spring here has already afforded me a handful of dreamy afternoons that break with the opening of windows, transforming my cozy warmth into a breezy parlor. This month brought the first thunder storm and with it the thunderous breaking sound that comforts my ears against the foreground of wind and water battering window ledges and awnings. The weather here is dynamic, for sure, and while at most times a far cry from the weather I knew before, it is satisfying. In fact, the weather I have experienced is what I like most about living in New York. Take the city, I don’t need it. The pattern of change that comes with clouds is all I need.

When Alex and I first started dating we spent a lot of time drinking cold drinks on hot porches. I remember thinking I wanted to live my life this way forever—in a time bound obligation to make sure the clock ticked by as slowly as possible; an obligation to drink every drop before it was time to return to my home where he did not yet live. My desire to be near him at all times with the aching heat turned me away from the cruelty of summer. The dog days were the moments we stole away from G-d, greedily keeping them for ourselves in our perfect bubble of budding love.

In the slow heat of the day I find excuses to stand for hours in the kitchen. I have rested barely a second since classes ended, spending a good chunk of each passing day in my favorite room of the house, cooking, cleaning, organizing, and prepping to begin again. I struggle with the idea of being productive, even in leisure. I’m not sure I know how to relax. How do you discover this at twenty-nine? Is there an age you reach when you at last understand just what your mind needs to be at ease?

Today it has drizzled nearly from the moment I awakened until now. The rain fell in a snowy pattern, light drops blown by wind into formations more akin to birdways than precipitation. I kept the windows tightly closed, air conditioner turned off. I must do my part to capture the sleepy hot air of the summer, allowing myself to doze at the peace that only a humid heat can make.

Spring, a story of plants

But where are my Pride of Barbados and the esperanza lining 281 south? What of the flowers that live on the floor of an oak forest and the sage, flowered, atop its limestone cliff? The stone loop of 1604 with its stunted evergreens… I wonder how many of them are still decorated for Christmases past.

When we moved, my mother got the backyard she always wanted. She and my father spent weeks digging themselves a pond in the evenings. I remember sitting in the kitchen and watching as their blistered hands pulled forth more earth, crawling with life and the mysteries of undeveloped land. The new backyard was barren, a land that seemed to me too vast to possibly populate with the greenery of which she dreamed.

Where are my Texas Mountain Laurel with its grape perfume and Mexican Heather in the front yard of my childhood home, home itself to the bees about my ankles, buzzy and sundrunk? I knew spring arrived when its purple flowers were covered in the hairy bodies of sweet, bumbling bees.

Our previous home, a rental across town, is where she showed us what dirt smells like after rain and how a weekend trip to Houston means arriving home to new baby squash and a jungle of string beans. There she gradually filled the ancient raised beds and showed us how caring for plants was as much a game of trial and error as it was a natural display of love.

Where are my zucchini flowers with their sticky sharpness and the rotten tulip bulbs unearthed by falling hail? My grandfather drank his coffee and stared at the storm while we held hands worrying about the vegetables.

One day my sister and I went into the woods behind the new house and dug up a yucca for my mother. We planted it in the backyard where it was visible from the kitchen window and beside it we gave a new home to a miniature rose bush. The plants looked pitiful, as if they had fallen roots-first off the back of a truck. Nobody bothered to throw them out and instead they pushed their way into the earth.

Where are my rhododendron and Jasmine creeping across the back fence? I hated their urine smell and the way vermin could hide in them, but their blooms marked so many passing years from my bedroom window.

We announced our triumph and showed her what we had done. I cannot recall her reaction—surely a mixture of incredulity, appreciation, and a stifled laugh—but I know how important it made us feel to give her our gift.

Where are my Turk’s Cap
amaryllis of my life
the peach tree outside my closet window on Brighton Oaks
the trumpet vine on Ridge Spur
the coreopsis beneath the Hackberry tree
datura with its evil bells outside the neighbor’s window
the vitex she planted on Trentwood when the Hackberry came down
banana trees whose vascular tissue grew even after being cut down for winter

I have grown even as I was cut down this winter. My childhood home is gone forever and spring creeps beyond a haze of fluorescent gray over the Hudson river. I miss the smells of my home and the birds and bees who grazed and lived among the names, scientific and common, that I collected for my mother’s treasures.

Yesterday I saw my first crocus blooms. I am learning a new flora and making it feel like home. Yellow buds along the train tracks show me that this may be the last time I take the 256 line south with my traveling companion, winter.

And I am ready to thaw.

Spring, a story of birds

Life is your bird bath.

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A mourning dove built a nest outside our window. She laid a pair of sweet, little eggs outside the room in which our birds sleep. Daily, a few birds visit the green area behind our apartment now, beginning their spring search for sprouted food. I try not to disturb her in the morning when I wake my own little eggs up.

A few weeks ago a young European Starling began a daily ritual of puttering about on our fire escape, practicing his songs, and dancing up and down the stairs. He has visited us all winter long, some days for just a minute or two, but he stays for longer visits now that it’s warming up. He rearranges the greenery on our fire escape and looks inside at the strange birds that live on the other side of the windows. He will attempt to secure a mate in the coming weeks and hopefully will grow his family in our midst.

Our indoor birds have grown restless and downy, anxious for the upcoming season change and (hopeful) increase in indoor humidity. Gandhi, our smaller bird, has started teasing Zoe more and taunting him from just beyond the reach of his cage. The hormones of spring are nearly in full swing and I can’t leave them alone together for a second.

And while the birds have been arranging for their changes of pace with the lengthening of days, it hit me only when emerging onto Herald Square from the Q train that winter is over. As the sun shone on my face for the first time in weeks, I squinted the tears from the corners of my eyes and understood. I am from Texas, and no matter how hard I try, winter will always be a psychological challenge for me.

Winter was a beautiful romance. I love the coziness of heated flooring and the warmth of a pre-war fireplace. Snow, ice, slush, and wintry drizzle amaze me. Far less precipitous winters are the norm where I’m from, so this year’s protracted winter started out as fun but eventually I found it more and more difficult to get out of bed in the morning (and to the nay-sayers: according to reported figures, this winter was the worst in ten years and smashed decades-old records).

Perhaps it was the announcement on WNYC today that we would see the 70s this weekend that prompted my tearful encounter with the sun. I scratched my head, unsure about how to dress for weather that warm. Do I just go back to my old clothes or is there a transition period in which I am expected to wear the lightest of sweaters over thin cotton? Will I look crazy if I head out in shorts and a t-shirt? I have forgotten what it’s like to leave the house with my arms and legs exposed.

Unlike the birds, I do not have an instinctual stirring that I know of (other than seasonal affective disorder) that makes me ready for spring. Instead I mark the passage of time by shifting our liturgy one important sentence: morid ha-tal we chant now, and rather than giving thanks to the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall, we thank the One who makes dew come down.

I steadied myself last week at the end of Pesach and prepared to chant the words for the first time in a year. Morid hatal. My first winter is over and spring is rearing its head. I have so much to do before the summer is here and nearly no time to prepare! At last, I join the birds in our flits of hurry. I must clear out my winter nest and look forward to a new coziness. Our second wedding anniversary approaches and at last this Texan’s skin has felt the sun.

Brooklyn Snow

We have finally begun to feel snug in our nest. The sparrows and pigeons outside our apartment are warm beneath their winter down, “floofed,” as we say, at all times. The dizzying array of iridescent feathers keep the wind from ever reaching their skin, and the follicles themselves protrude like goose bumps to keep every feather standing at attention in the snow. On the surface of every bird is a battle of homeostasis: sleeping, eating, and “floofing” make for an exhausting day, but these birds—many of whom are experiencing their first snow this season—are well equipped. And should they fail, their flock will be at their side with extra warmth on chilly nights.

Unlike the rain, which the sky begrudgingly releases only when it absolutely must to spare the parched earth, the snow is simply released above us to flutter, flail, and ultimately gather at our feet. It threatens the salted streets, riverbanks growing where sidewalks once knew the sun. I believe whole heartedly that when nobody is looking the snow rearranges itself neatly along the edges of the land it cannot conquer. As the street stays black, aided by the tires of passing cars, the snow lingers along its sidelines, ever gradually working its way toward full coverage.

I watched as a truck sent a vortex of snow in a rage—how dare the gust of traffic keep flakes from their final resting place! Here on Fourth Avenue the snow attacks the expressway at a slant, at times so nearly parallel to the earth that it looks as though Bay Ridge is exporting its snowy produce toward the Gowanus canal. From the windows of the birds’ room, our secret garden in the airlock between our buildings is an idyllic white pasture where snow gracefully lets itself down to the remains of patio furniture and abandoned wheel barrows. The chain link fences and wrought iron are appropriately be-speckled by the sky’s white equalizer. The apparent economic stratification from one corner of South Slope to the far edge of Park Slope is blanketed by a cotton of ice that begs for hot chocolate and Netflix.

There is little in life more exciting than the run to the subway. I laugh to myself as I run from the snow, hiding underground in relative warmth, antsy until my train emerges above ground shortly after our transfer to Dekalb Avenue. Here, along the bridge, we meet again as a new battle emerges between frigid river barge brigade and a foreign snowy offensive. I quietly cheer for the snow to win. My morbid hope that this be the snow that slows the city that never sleeps to a grinding halt keeps me glued to the windows of the train. Perhaps today is the day of this freezing week on which we finally see a reprieve from the endless demands of Manhattan that spill over into my Brooklyn paradise. With the day’s 800 meters of visibility the ever-looming skyline of sad towers is already completely obscured by a comforting snow. Nothing beyond the expressway exists, and the foreground of my view is a fire escape delicately topped with confectioner’s sugar.

The second to last day of the year and what a magical day it is to awaken to what still feels a fairy tale. I pray that the birds beyond my window stay warm and loved as the ones inside. I nearly muster a prayer for humanity but do not wish to jinx this magical day. Today humanity must pause and concede to the might of the sky.

Brooklyn Rain

The harsh traffic sounds became a soft sizzle. The winds crept up a bit and softened the situation, left a blurred sort of impression in my eyes. I opened the windows to a symphony that cured my ailing ears from the stale complaint of the horns and jagged barbs of highway noise. I sat and breathed for a moment, unaware that the rain had begun to come into the room. I imagined a dramatic red velvet curtain curling at my luxurious entrance on a palatial balcony overlooking the once-parched implacable city streets. The curtains in fact were in on the production, back-up singers carrying me to my greatest villain song.

The first good rain came before we had fully moved in. Most of our life was still in boxes. We were without routine or the comforts of home, but our home was already a thrilling adventure. In the heat of summer we sweat a flood upon our skin, sticky sleep on air mattress sheets. The heat was unbearable with the windows closed and so we were at the mercy of fourth avenue’s incessant taunting. The masses line up to turn left onto 17th street, shooting their frustrated honk at my face. The expressway lines our master bedroom’s bay windows and the passersby pollute the quiet moments of morning light that mean an end to the LED street lamps in my eyes.

Our first few weeks here were a challenge. Between the noise and the headlights blaring into our room, sleep was miserable. We were forced to choose between sleepless, noisy nights with a breeze or a stuffy nightmare with a slightly muted reminder that just beyond our windows is a bridge to Manhattan that never quiets down.

But days like today remind me of why we loved this apartment when we first saw it. Behind closed windows in a cozy apartment on a chilly day we are sheltered from the rain I love so much. I look up at a sheer grayness as Manhattan disappears behind the downpour and the diffused light casts a melancholic glow upon the room. Here we are in the midst of a deluge and all I can think of is how lucky we are to have our own piece of unobstructed sky through the windows.

Today I cannot see the Statue of Liberty from my kitchen window, but I instead see the bricks on the building across the street darkened with rain. I see the puddles forming around the construction of the Prospect Ave. R Train stop. The cars seem less hurried, their occupants subdued by a sense of resignation that yes, today I will be late because of the rain. Today is a perfect day.

These Cloudy Days of Awe: Hin’ni and Nina Simone

It’s been ages since I have just put on headphones and listened to music. I sing so much at school and while preparing for classes, services, and the High Holy Days that the last thing on my mind is music for recreation. I sit at the piano and hammer away my frustrations, I sit and learn new pieces on my guitar, but I never listen. I have closed off my ears in exhausted frustration.

I do chores to the soundtrack of NPR. I opt for TV when I need noise at home that doesn’t require anything of me. I don’t know how long I’ve been this exhausted, but it has become a fact of life. When I finally get to relax, my fuel tank is empty and I simply do not have the capacity to enjoy music outside of work and school.

Today, however, I broke out my headphones. On my way to Penn Station to catch a train to my pulpit in Schenectady it dawned on me that it has been so long since I have listened to music that I didn’t know where to start. This time last year I made a playlist for the Days of Awe, the days of this season during which we look inward to take spiritual inventory of our year. Who were we, what did we do, whom did we love? Whom have we harmed?

The first song had me nearly in tears. It is a particularly heavy song, weighed down by memories of my days as a singer-songwriter. I sang it to open each set. I played and sang my heart out in bars and listening rooms hoping to find some kind of connection, but I mostly came up empty in terms of spiritual satisfaction. I felt a kind of numbness in my performance high that was not only confusing, but totally uninspiring. Today as the Days of Awe playlist continued, I remembered why I added each song to this list last year. I began looking at the time between then and now. How have these songs changed? How have I changed? How has my relationship with music changed?

I am going to stand before a congregation I love and pray with them during these Days of Awe. I am going to literally and metaphorically beseech G-d for guidance through the process of forgiving myself and others. I will stand on the bimah and pray through music for myself and on behalf of the congregation. This year, however, I am responsible for delivering a piece of liturgy that has both inspired me and terrified me.

Nina Simone’s famous cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on next. Her fervent prayer that the good within her outlast the bad struck me. I have spent days, weeks, and months feeling the pressure of the upcoming holidays and I have mostly felt crushed beneath their weight. I have struggled to present a true version of myself to the world while hiding my feelings of inadequacy.

Baby, sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that’s hard to hide
And sometimes it seems that
All I have to do is worry
And then you’re bound to see my other side

I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I could not believe it. I’m on my way to do something that scares me to death and here is a song I have sung for years and finally understood. This feeling exists all around me, and I have never listened.

“Hin’ni,” I will chant.

Here I am standing before this congregation asking You, G-d, to look past my shortcomings and accept the words in this room. If I should fall short, I ask humbly that you do not fault them on my behalf. Please give me the strength to do this to the best of my ability… I don’t know what else to do.

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

I used to pray this every time I walked onto a stage. Now, finally, I pray this in a place where I belong, no longer performing, and no longer searching for fulfillment. Truly, hin’ni.

My Days of Awe were cloudy days in which I felt lost. I’m still a bundle of nerves and self-doubt, but I can say for sure that my heart and soul are in the right place. As we go into these magnificent, terrifying, and challenging days, we will find our own ways to stand and say Hin’ni. I offer my spiritual disclaimer in no uncertain terms: I am scared. I am still learning and I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing. But I am also a soul whose intentions are good, and all I can do is hope that my work and my intentions are enough for this season.

And when it’s all done, I promise to listen to music again.

Blessed are you, Eternal Source of the Universe, who hears our prayers.

Shanah tovah.

Struggle, Part III: Home

I am running out of my weird Ukrainian deodorant from Israel. The sunscreen tube is almost empty. My last squeezes of pastes and lotions from the year. A halfway house of life that has abated the culture shock I’ve hoped to avoid thus far out of fear of finding home foreign.

My toothpaste boasts the smooth English words and graphics known to American brands. It’s replaced by Turkish or Polish or Romanian depending on what the discount shop had in stock. The bristles of my brush are beginning to bend after their use before returning to the United States. And my vials of essential oils marked אץ התה have dried up.

I have little proof other than photographs and funny stories of my day-to-day life in Jerusalem. It is not my grand experiences or tourist accomplishments of which I am the most proud, but rather the times I successfully battled with customer service in Hebrew to get my way. The screaming match with my landlord. How nonchalantly I could visit the post office by the time my year came to an end.

When I visit Israel next will I feel as though I ever lived there? My feelings on this matter have less to do with the romanticized idea of Israel and more to do with the peculiarities of uprooting your life after you’ve worked so hard to establish a home somewhere. Alex and I did that. We had a life full of routines and idiosyncrasies; regularities and particularities. As these begin to emerge for us in Brooklyn, I wonder how soon it will be until I forget what the walk home from the grocery store looked like or just how beautiful the beach was in Tel Aviv. I fear that perhaps these memories will sprout new qualities as time goes on and maybe I will misremember the good and exaggerate the bad. Or vice-versa.

Our apartment in Brooklyn is on a noisy Avenue just south of Gowanus and Park Slope. The neighborhoods have ridiculous names from characters that perhaps New Yorkers recognize, but to me they are mysteries that I have to uncover like I did in Jerusalem. I find myself already relishing the banality in my walk to the subway and I’m comforted by how quickly I have grown used to this new place. I pat myself on the back for this survival skill. While I may recover slowly from the pain of uprooting, I can quickly establish new roots when the environment is right.

Everything about life in Brooklyn is turned on its head by life in Schenectady. In Brooklyn I hear cars speeding past on the highway all night long. Their headlights hurl wicked shadows onto the exposed brick fireplace at the foot of our bed. I hear emergency vehicles and horns honking. I hear people shout in the street until midnight and have to use a white noise machine to equalize the noise pollution if I want to sleep. The apartment is warm and muggy. Without A/C we have to choose between the noise of the street for a decent breeze or the stickiness of stagnant air to muffle the commotion outside. We open and close the windows as the day goes on. The light comes in and moves across the apartment as the afternoon grows old. My husband walks through the door with a look of relief and exhaustion. It is perfect in every single way because it is home.

In Schenectady I turn on the A/C (even though I am not warm) for noise. I am frightened by the total silence and darkness I had in San Antonio. My childhood windows face a city park with no lights or traffic. In Schenectady, even the nearby neighbors’ lights are off and the entire house is a shadow. It is so serene with its lush woods and incredibly tall trees. I wonder if I can handle this peaceful place and I laugh at myself for such a preposterous thought—here I can actually sleep, and as soon as my head hits the pillow the sun greets me. Here too, with its idyllic Mayberry solitude, is another perfect home.

Why am I so quick to find home? Something inside me seeks to normalize the fear of not belonging. I believe growing up as a child with a secret—my queer identity—encouraged me to make the unfamiliar as familiar as possible. The ultimate exercise in survival, I force myself to empathize with my surroundings, to make them known to me. If the world is uncertain and I cannot know how it will treat me, I must at least know where I stand.

The entirety of my year in Israel and move to New York has illuminated a text I have seen inscribed upon mantles and pasted across t-shirts. “Know before whom you stand.” In the Jewish world, and especially in the liberal Jewish world, this statement is a tired cliche. Its wisdom is eternal, though its constant usage had rendered it nothing more than another slogan to me. For better or for worse, I always find out before whom, with whom, and in spite of whom I stand.

There is a reason I need a room with windows and why I pray outdoors and why I insist on traveling by foot in a new place. I must know before whom I stand. From when I was a little boy with a secret until now I have always tried to pinpoint my place in the universe. I am grateful for this need I have to search. The search has brought me home. Again and again and again.

Struggle, Part II: Leaving

Lot’s wife looked back; I closed my eyes as I left Jerusalem. I chose not to look behind me, but it will not save me from becoming a pillar of salt.

As I sat in the taxi on the way to the airport, I realized that as soon as I enter the United States I won’t have a working cell phone. I began rehearsing how to fluently ask someone to borrow their phone in Hebrew but I don’t have to do this anymore. I don’t have to anticipate my interactions before I leave the house and make sure I can conjugate potential verbs correctly if they come up. I stress about sounding stupid and how to throw in enough colloquialisms and slang to pass as Israeli so that I will be taken more seriously. It works almost all the time, but not without practice.

How would it feel if this were actually my forever home and not “just” a place I loved? I don’t want to live my life grasping the majority of the conversation around me but not quite *all* of it. I don’t want to always be just slightly out of place and to continue to default to a foreign tongue to clear things up when my thoughts switch to Hebrew. When I wake up with Hebrew on my lips because I had been dreaming in this other language and it still feels strange. What am I to do?

I am returning to my home where my native tongue is the default language of the land. I cannot help but admire and feel for the people who live in the United States because there was something about it they loved or needed but for whom English is still a foreign tongue.

I love Hebrew. It thrills me to speak it. It’s concise and percussive and perfectly expressive. Its slang has roots in holy text and its neighboring Arabic. It feels good.

Home feels like home and a distant, slightly uncomfortable memory. It was perfect, only its reemergence on your horizon means your current dream has come to an end.

I cannot look out my windows as we’re driving. I remember how Naomi Shemer wrote Lu Y’hi driving between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. What could I write at this tumultuous time? I am leaving my city of gold without a song upon my lips.

It’s bittersweet. But I am finally ready.

Struggle, Part I: Returning

I started knitting a baby blanket the day after Alex and I returned from New York. We signed a lease on an apartment in Brooklyn after falling in love with the second place we saw. I could have skipped all the way back to San Antonio, relieved that our apartment search went so well.

I bought the yarn with a clear picture in mind. Here I am, 28 years old with the most incredible husband by my side, about to leave San Antonio again. For good this time. We leave knowing that in four years we will have to decide where to start our lives as we start our careers. And now that I am running out of time to avoid making decisions, our plans to start a family are coming into focus.

But the vaguest memory of a walk down Yoel Solomon sets me back. The thought of Jerusalem elicits a tightening in my chest, a contraction of my stomach, a single heart beat during which every memory of the past year rushes back to me. Its tide recedes in an instant and the realization that I lie 7,000 miles away from my friends and my spiritual home sinks in. I never knew exile until I stood for the last time on the Israeli side of airport security before returning home.

I think my sadness could have been mitigated by a visit or two to the US during my year in Israel, but only to the detriment of my connection to the land. Having spent a full year experiencing the Hebrew calendar and seasons in the land of Israel, laughing, crying, celebrating, and mourning, has let me (or perhaps forced me) to regard two lands as my home.

I expected to land in San Francisco in mourning. I was prepared to walk through customs and begin adjusting as well as I could to a foreign home land. Instead I was put off by how easy it was to feel at home in a place I had not missed that much in the year I was gone. I guess because I knew my year in Israel was just that–a year–I was able to jump in with a limited emotional commitment. Between the presence of my husband who put his life on hold for a year to be by my side and the fact that our return to the United States was inevitable, I had no difficulty with the idea of living abroad for a year. Instead I was uncomfortable with how easy it would have been to stay.

I talk about it romantically but it’s because I feel it. And then I think about how others may not understand that situation and it might just be like how inexplicably happy that woman in Under the Tuscan Sun was to be in a place that she knew was like 75% awful but there was some ridiculous charm that made it her ultimate happiness.

I don’t remember how the movie ends but in my version she goes back home and realizes that’s actually where she wants to be. And she struggles with this. And she feels guilty for turning her back on that place but she’s just not willing to sacrifice the comforts of home, no matter what dreamworld she was in that fulfilled her so completely.

Coming back to America and remembering how much I love my hometown makes me wonder if I was ever so in love with Israel. I think I was. I successfully romanticized its biblical history, its pain of exile, and its rebirth as a nation of determined Jewish people and I made its story my own. I connected to its patriotism in a way I had always feared in the United States. And yet I knew that my unwillingness to live my life as a non-Israeli born Israeli would keep me from ever submitting to the Zionist dream of making aliyah.

Yes, Israel’s allure is unending and Jerusalem’s pull on me knows no bounds, and yes I still tear up when I peruse a particular psalm or hear my favorite Israeli pop song, but I also found myself dreaming another dream from a rooftop in Brooklyn on the Fourth of July. A year away made this day finally make sense to me, not for any beautifully patriotic reason, but because I got to see how Israelis love their country on their Independence Day. Part of me wants that. The rest of me knows that settling in Israel would just be settling. I cannot leave the comforts of America behind, nor can I leave my future as a parent in the hands of a powerless Israeli Supreme Court and a morally compromised legislative body that refuses to stand up for my right to adopt children. My home state of Texas has failed me time and again on this matter, and just as I refuse to start a family there, so too do I turn my back on Israel.

If I will it, it is no dream. Truly, if I were to take my place in Zion, I would be forsaking my dream. I need Israel to exist for my children, but more importantly, I need my children to exist in the first place.

For them I sacrifice everything, even Theodore Hertzl’s romantic vision. In the meantime–as with all things Jewish and Israeli–I struggle. And I dream.