“Animal totems, like the tiger, come from the Other Side to protect us while we are away from Home.”- Sylvia Browne
“Only in art will the lion lie down with the lamb, and the rose grow without the thorn.” -Martin Amis
As all break ups are painful this was not an exception, but pain is subjective, I thought to myself. Every break up seems to be the worst there ever was, but they all become part of a storyline and lesson plan that eventually don’t invoke pain the way they did or could before.
I notice with a smug sense of pride that I am unaffected by past resentment even if it took many years because time does in fact heal some wounds. It’s the same smugness I have when meeting up with my ex and his girlfriend. I gloat and I feel a sense of pride that I have “moved on”. I can even imagine their happy lives fulfilled without me, and it makes me feel a superiority that I am no longer attached. My facade of being untouchable crumbles as I realize that I may have gotten over him but not everyone entirely.
I feel a creeping truth in the form of a pain in my chest. I assume it’s my pride pinching me and it’s quietly taking up residence in me secretly beneath the surface.
I shut down the computer and lay in bed turning all the lights off but I don’t fall asleep. I ask myself why there remains that pinching feeling on my chest and where it usually goes to hide itself? It is a resident that I did not know occupied any space and I want to know where it normally lives so that I can evict it. It etches more into my senses as I ask more questions.
This feeling surfaces once every few years or so when I am finally lying alone at night and it comes to fill the space in bed next to me which has kept me filling that space in bed with someone to avoid this moment.
It feels like a small wave building up as the feeling that is sitting on my chest reaches down to whisper in my ear what I now hear loudly in my head:
You don’t want me but I am here. You are afraid because you can’t control or change me but I am The End and one day after everyone and everything else around you is gone I will be here because I am the only thing that is certain. You will end one day and you can’t keep your daughter or your family or any beloved.
My jaw tightens as I lie on the flat of my back now listening to the clock tick loudly down the hallway in the silence of my sleeping city. I swallow the lump in my throat and squeeze my eyes letting gravity push my tears into the curves of my ear drums.
I never knew I was afraid of death but this now explains why so many exes have taken to call me irresponsible as I give planning the future or tomorrow the finger.
I had no idea I linked dying to the idea of love even as I have clung to love to spare me from death as if it were it’s only remedy and cure.
It’s a jumbled mess in my head but I realized last night that I seem to also see the state of marriage as death, I see loving another as the death of the ego, and the end of love as just one smelly rotting corpse where you disappear.
Love is scary because even after finding the one you want to live and die with, “What will happen after we die?” I once asked my ex. “What will happen to you? How will I find you again?” He had no answers. You can’t keep it forever no matter if he or she is the love of your life.
I am sure fear of death is why people buy and collect more than they can ever use and why my mother hoards junk into her small room and why I have avoided sitting Shiva this week with the family I love.
Fear of the all mighty End is also probably why many people stay longer in dying relationships and seek narratives of resurrection and return.
We avoid that phrase “The End”…that marks the last shot of every good movie and everyone who has ever entered us and made us believe in eternity.
I don’t want to admit that death is a part of life and that we all will evaporate in a flash. I will disappear from my daughter as my father did from me. We will all break up from each other and this break up will be bruising even though we had all our lives together to prepare for it.
How liberating it must be to have no notion of ones morality and ones limits and death.
If I had no fear of the End, I probably would not try to control everything. There would be no anxiety because there would be no consciousness of the limitations.
My daughter is roughly the same age I was when I had to acknowledge death so I tell my girl that there is nothing sad in death (although I lie) and I tell her there is nothing to be afraid of (which is true) because life and energy can never be created or destroyed, only transformed. That is the only fact that has always comforted me because I know that for her sake she must not fear dying because if we fear death, we can’t ever really live.
I have been keeping journals ever since I was 13 years old, the same year I read my first book.
I started writing essays on the books I read and when I finally entered school at age 14 I discovered that what I did for fun was what they asked us to do for school work. “Cool!” I thought.
I didn’t understand the usefulness of my journals at the time, but like photos, they help me remember my history that I sometimes willfully forget.
I flip through the pages of the 50 plus journals filling the boxes in my closet. Filled to brim are my thoughts, rants, manifestos, poetry, art and mementos. I can’t compare the child I was as 13 to the child I am today but there is something delightful to read through my thoughts as a young adolescent without any crushes on boys in my pages but instead a list of names with strong meanings for future daughters. I wanted their names to mean “bold” “brave” “warrior” “strong” everything I was taught not to be.
If I flip through my journals from college that is when the idea of romantic love is introduced with my first crush on a girl. I speak of falling in love and describe my beloved ones in glowing terms until the end of the books where I discover that I am thoroughly disappointed that they are not the goddesses I imagined but humans. That script of unrealistic idealization of love ending always in angry disappointment repeats itself with men much later again post college like a tired script I already know the ending to. I don’t think I have yet updated that script so I return the books to their boxes and turn to my photographs. I have a love affair with photos on par with words.
As I organized my photos last night I thought to myself…I know we are supposed to be beautiful in our youth but I think I have gotten better looking with age. I can see in photos that I have gotten less insecure and in fact happier in my life despite the fact that we often romanticize the past .
In my childhood pictures I am always performing. In my teenage years I was angry and hiding my body behind clothes, pulling my hair back and trying to be as unattractive as possible. In college, I ridiculously pose for every picture and struggle against losing myself in my strange concept of love.
In Morocco all my photos are of everyone else until after the arrival of my daughter when there is hardly any photos of anyone but her. I could barely find a photo of myself. I have only photos of her and her father which makes me smile. For me, it’s love to take someone’s photo. The fact that I couldn’t find myself there made me happy that I was erased by something more relevant.
When there was the occasional photo of me I seem beyond happiness to be with my child despite seeing in some other pictures myself visibly struggling to make peace with what was happening after the camera snapped the photo which was an intense fight to find money and find emotional strength to handle the violent domestic situation I was trying to hide from friends and family.
The last photos with her father, myself and her in our home was on her first birthday. I knew those photos would be the last of us together as a couple so I waited the extra few weeks before my great escape. I wanted to stay until after her birthday to show her those happy photos in my one last make-believe moment of unity.
The photos of me and her father disappear, there are just photos of my daughter getting older and more beautiful until about last year. Without warning I find an explosion of photos of me. Me at home, me sleeping, me laughing, me talking, I am not posing, I am not stressed, I am expressing joy and living life and being my daughters mom and someone’s love and a crazy artist.
I am surprised to find all these photos and it takes me a moment to understand why or how there are so many photos of me in off guard moments. They are sometimes blurry and sometimes too clear and exposed to post anywhere. They came from phone cameras and computer cameras taken by me for another and from another of me. I am amazed at the photos candor and their dynamic range of the portrait of my life. There are photos of everything, every part of me in their crude way.
It hits me that for the first time someone who loved me went out of their way to document me in the same way I document others. I realized that he seamlessly coached me out from behind the camera to be natural in front of it. There are hardly any posed pictures, I am just present and in such an honest way.
The entire year is filled with natural images and for the first time I see myself. Through his lens I am without makeup, without cover or posturing and I still…beautiful and alive.
It was a discovery.
I was loved and I am loved still and I see that in the photos.
It’s a blessing and a gift.
My daughter started documenting life and has amazing pictures that I save for her exhibit one day.
The language of love speaks to me through images and it spreads and passes hands from to another and this to that generation.
Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth. Only love can give us the strength to go forward in the midst of heartbreak and misery. Only love can give us power to reconcile, to redeem, the power to renew weary spirits and save lost souls. The transformative power of love is the foundation of all meaningful social change. Without love our lives are without meaning. Love is the heart of the matter. When all else has fallen away, love sustains.
By bell hooks
I am behind the camera most times and sometimes I go in front of it like I did today. I took my tripod and my child with my equipment and got in a taxi without waiting for someone to come for me. I filmed for the news channel and met with the mother of my ex. We love each other, why I don’t know. I see her as a cutie. People think she’s crazy. Perhaps we have this in common.
On the way back home the King’s car and entourage passed us as we were forced to pull over and wait for them to speed past. I returned to release the painters trapped on my balcony that were working until I got back.
I wanted to sleep to forget the pinging in the back of my chest but I decided to fight the desire to self destruct, two things easy to embrace in Morocco. I took my camera out and turned it on myself. I confessed everything to my camera as if it were my silent friend.
I watched the rushes back and was surprised by how I looked. I was beautiful and raw, naked in front of the lens.
The camera did what the camera does not always do. It released me from myself. I was not caught in a moment. I was captured in spirit and released from myself.
I heard myself on camera say, “Michelle you sometimes have no compassion for yourself. Have some compassion for yourself.”
My camera let me have compassion for myself which in turn let me release and walk away from the feelings. I was able to leave it all behind and go do something ‘ordinary’ like make shabbat dinner with a full heart of happiness and joy.
Shiyara lit candles and prayed by herself sometimes repeating back what she heard me pray. She covers her eyes and says, “I love you Mommy, bless her, her name is Michelle and I love papa, I love shalom.” She set the table by herself and looked forward to wash her hands with me and to sing Shalom Aleichem remembering all the words.
After she slept in the candle light next to us in bed, I slipped into the other room.
I closed my eyes telling her a story and praying with every step.