“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.”
-Roald Dahl, Matilda
God, how I hated reading.
And, despite the dozens of emphatic recommendations based on the premise that I’d find qualities of myself in––and lessons to learn from––the protagonist, I never so much as cracked the binding on Matilda. Take that, Mrs. Gruber, Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Richardson, Mrs. Williams, and Librarian Phyllis, and let me repeat: I hated reading.
Reading required time, patience, and a reasonably long attention span; on my best days, I was in possession of at most two of the three at any given point in time. Besides, why should I have even cared about reading? I found the world and people and lives around me to be perpetually new, amazing, and exciting; they ought to have been enough for me, without extra pages of places and characters and stories––without the fiction. Or, for the sake of passing my primary and secondary school curricula, with as little page-turning as needed to still excel from year to year and meet the standard book quota for English classes and mandatory summer reading book reports alike (sorry, Librarian Phyllis).
Defiant and confident in my stand against The Book, I knew I did not need someone else’s opinions or perceptions of that which I’d already experienced, already understood. It was, frankly, a waste of my time. I’ll shape my own world as I see fit, thank you very much.
“While … mathematics may tell us how the universe began, [it is] not much use in predicting human behavior because there are far too many equations to solve. I’m no better than anyone else at understanding what makes people tick…”
– Stephen Hawking, “10 Questions for Stephen Hawking,” Interview by Time Magazine
Black dress? Check. Black tights, black shoes, black coat? Check. Premeditated responses to every blessed familial catch-up question? Check.
Math class, Reva. Just say Math is your favorite class, and no one will ask you any more questions. I mean, no one here cares about math like you do, Reva, and you barely ever see or talk to your relatives, and you probably won’t see them again until your Bat Mitzvah in four years, so why start faking it now? Just get out of the car already… and stop thinking about yourself, and stop thinking about thinking about yourself, and–– Oh shut up, Reva. How selfish! No one cares that you’re doing long division; no one cares that you’re here; it doesn’t matter that any of us are here.
Grandma’s not, and that’s what matters.
Can Grandma see that we’re all here to see her one last time?
I get out of the car and teeter along the curb on the way to the sole limestone building on the premises, along the axes of a coordinate plane whose ordered pairs each held a story beyond their engraved Ashkenazi surnames. From an aerial view lay stories of emigration and immigration, of persecution abroad and domestic, of guilt and celebration, of foods and famine, of tradition and purity. Stories passed down for centuries and stories yet untold, now buried, litter the grid.
Grandma had a different story entirely, her surname not like the others in the yard. Directions to her coordinates would only take me to the name of Grandpa’s Polish-labeled family, and of my family, but not of hers. Well, Grandma had a lot of stories. Of those I have heard, I did not hear most of them until much later, and even nine years later by age eighteen, I will still have yet to hear most of them. I suppose the bulk of them I’ll never get to hear…
Family members approach me throughout the day, as they greet me with simplifying statements of, “She’s looking down on you now” (isn’t that what God does, too?) and “She’s in a better place now” (like the Nickelodeon cartoon characters always say of a lost dog), but it’s a beautiful day in May, and Grandma was always such a smiler from her hospital bed, so where could it be better? Where could she be? I look up to the sky and see no one looking down, not even a single cloud for her to be perched atop, yet water droplets trickle down my face. Just say math class, Reva. There were no corollaries or properties to lead me through a proof of her presence. There were no coordinates for her soul from which to extrapolate the distance between mind and body. There were just too many variables and one ‘X’ I could not solve for.
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery… ”
– George Orwell, “Why I Write,” Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays
My mother walks into the bathroom to find my preoccupied reflection, clad in the five-year-old Barbie shower towel I got in Kindergarten, staring and squinting into the tile-framed mirror.
She follows custom. “Hey, Reevie. D’you want me to blow-dry your hair?”
“Yes please.” With more on my mind, I inquire, “What should I do if I think I just realized in the shower the answer to something really, really weird?”
“Maybe go on your computer and write it down and save it on Word… What is it?”
“I was just thinking about, like, life and stuff.” Mommy does not seem so satisfied with that answer. “Okay, so, everyone always says that you’re born, and you live, then you die, right?” Right, I confirm to myself in my head. “And you don’t know what happens when you die, right?” Right. “What if there’s another world where people actually live, and when they die, they come to where we are now as their afterlife? Like, how do we know what we’re living isn’t what the actual world’s people call death? That’s possible right?” Right. “So, why is everyone scared of being on the path to their death when they could really be on the path to their birth?”
“Oh. W-wow, Reev, interesting… Forget your hair; go write that down before you forget it!”
It was the first Microsoft Word 2007 document I’d saved, but I jotted down everything. And that was the beginning of something uniquely terrifying, yet great.
* * *
The tops of my shoulders still a burnt orange from the day before, I finally get back from my walk along the shores of West Palm Beach with Daddy. I don’t really like the water, but I like walking where the water stays below my calf, when the sun rises and sets over the changing tides, and with him by my side.
We plop down on the randomly placed beach lounge chairs located in the sands, and from his pocket he pulls out a receipt from last night’s ever-exotic Marriott Cabana dinner.
“Everything we talked about, Reev, rhymes and all: write it down.” And I scrawl:
You leave your footprint on the world just as you do on the beach.
You think that you’re important whether you invent, build, or preach.
But in the end your footprint, no matter large or small,
Will be devoured by The Wave and gone once and for all.
I re-read and repeat the poem over and over for the rest of the vacation and as soon as I am back in New York bring it into the middle school’s new creative writing extra-curricular I dared to sign up for. Perhaps this marks the first existential crisis and resolution of my youth; I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
* * *
Walking through the kitchen, I saunter past the new addition to the room: the remnants of a father-bought Mother’s Day bouquet. Only one lily from the bunch has not yet died and been discarded. It occupies the vase, alone, as it wilts away one petal at a time, hopelessly falling over on its own emaciated stem, letting only the rim of the vase shape its (quite literal) downfall, without the crutch of other flowers in the bouquet for support.
Ah, the tragedy of being last.
I contemplate if this phenomenon is commonplace across taxonomic kingdoms.
And, naturally, I sprint through the hallway to my bedroom and scribble these observations down in a small notepad beside my bed.
* * *
Mrs. Williams hands back our short stories one by one. This has been the most open-ended assignment we’ve had so far in fifth grade; usually we have to stick to themes like friendship, sports, our favorite animals and why. This essay was all me: a child playing around in an abandoned wintry forest, mesmerized by a mysterious ring of ice at the top of an incredibly snow-packed mountain. I would venture to guess the other kids in my class don’t have such great endings as I:
Mrs. Williams responded at the bottom of my draft:
The honing of this revision would take me days to complete, as I am one to write and scrap should I not be satisfied with the merit of the conclusions I draw. Finally, something satisfactory: I would find a greater purpose in the mystery of death, though fictional and naïve, and I would experience nothing but overwhelming comfort in revising what I both wrote and thought to be Truth.
Today, seven years later, I write to explore my misconceptions more than ever. Panning through a mental list of everything I’ve written for my leisure leads me to categorize foci by era.
From third through fifth grade (save one fan-mail letter to Taylor Swift and one professing of severe crushing) I was evidently (and previously unbeknownst to even myself) preoccupied with death and all its mysteries.
From sixth through tenth grade, I approached the idea of self-expression and peer communication through written word. I wrote opinion articles and editorials for the school newspaper, and raps for my friends, family, and classmates to get out my voice when I felt stifled or otherwise ineloquent in any other form of communication. I am convinced I won my student government election solely for rapping my speech to the backbeat of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” playing off a portable stereo as I donned a gaudy fur coat. Writing provided me a method to confidently appeal to audiences unlike myself and reach beyond my newly-malleable comfort zone.
From eleventh through twelfth grade, I was caught up in the labyrinth of college application-induced self-reflection. I analyzed events in my life that precipitated the person I had grown into and continue to grow into as I write my way through perspective changes. I began to pick up patterns of spoken word poetry, and occasionally shared and performed with friends or at “slam”-like gatherings what I wrote in the Notepad app on my cell phone, on topics ranging from “Science vs. Religion tension” to “gender inequality” to “struggles with identity.” With every outpour of written thought came confidence, gradually instilled in me by the beauty in the freedom to articulate my own thoughts, unfettered.
Since then, my writings have turned to focus on changes in my environment and what that means for a budding quasi-adult transitioning from one protective Bubble to another; what determines success at a place that is structured to break me down to build me up; what weight need be placed on self-versus-community in a place that demands I reach out and reach in; and what denotes “Home” anymore in a place with which I have bestowed the title of “Seventh Location of Residence.”
I could not be more grateful to have never found great solace in reading or mathematics. I’ve never found myself reading for leisure, and I’ve never been flattered by people telling me I’m good at math. Reading, to me, is a stranger handing me the experiences he’s penned, and mathematics is Nature handing me the natural laws She’s penned. Yet, neither is as satisfying as my wielding the pen myself.
Writing is inherently personal, uniquely mine. I believe a life lived unscrutinized is a story unwritten, wasted. Of course it’s absolutely vain, selfish and lazy, but ruthlessly and unabashedly raw. It is the best way to relay the match to spectators: convey that with which I tussle and grapple and wrestle until one of us––I or the thought––is pinned to the mat.
When I write, I am a rock exposed, stranded in the midst of the tides of my own surface-bashing introspection, whose violent buoyancy may at times be the only force keeping me afloat. Yet, I would rather be that rock, eroded down to nothing, feeling everything, than sink in waters all my own.