Happy Friday! I’m delighted to be in Lenny today, with the story of how I healed from chronic back pain. If you want to go back and read Part 1 of the story on Longreads — all about my dance career — clickhere.
I’d love to hear all about your woes of pain and (hopefully) recovery.
Last Friday, I hid out in my daughter’s preschool classroom. It truly seemed like the only sane thing to do. Friday is Shabbat, a morning when the Rabbi—a young woman in her thirties my daughter adores—sings and prays and tells stories and dances around the room with the kids, and families are always welcome. When I saw a new friend, one with whom I’ve spent the better part of the last few months in candid, worried conversations about the state of the world, walk in with her husband—it was their son’s day to have their family participate in Shabbat—we both began to cry. She’d been listening to the inauguration speech on her way to school and was beside herself. (I haven’t and won’t listen to any of it.)
The kids begin each Friday the same way, sitting around in a circle on the brown carpet, singing: “We’re so glad that Shabbat is here,” and they genuinely are—every week, when I remind my daughter that it’s Shabbat, she screeches, practically jumps out of her skin. “Will the Rabbi be there?” (Yes, yes, she is almost always there.) There is something profoundly reassuring about the ritual; something so powerful about the act of simply acknowledging your gratitude—that you made it through the week, that you are surrounding by friends and family, and that you have the gift of slowing down and feeling that gratitude. That we are meant to eat and drink and share in our humanity together. That we know, no matter what, we will gather. (Sometimes I think, what else is there, really?)
A few parents were there, clearly shielding themselves from the outside world. One woman had been at the parents’ board meeting I went to on November 9th; a gathering we all sobbed our way through, a picture of Hillary staring back at us from the pre-printed agenda for the morning. Before I knew her name, I knew she had gotten a pedicure with a white H and an arrow through it. I stared at her toes all through that meeting, wondering how long the meticulous artwork had taken, when she’d have the courage to take it off her body; whether she’d just let it slowly chip off over time. For weeks she kept it on and finally said to me, “I haven’t had the heart to do anything about it.” I didn’t blame her. Our Hillary sticker is still on our fridge, a pin on my tote bag. I wear my T-shirts to bed. Today, we sat across the circle from each other and I couldn’t bear to make eye contact with her—the one time I did, I could see her eyes brimming with tears as our kids sang joyfully on our laps. I buried my own face in my kid’s hair.
I’ve stayed for Shabbat before, but they have a new ritual, perhaps because the children are now old enough to really participate. After the rabbi has left—after the singing and praying and gallivanting around the room is over, after the “Torahs” have been put away—they sit back down in their circle. One child distributes change from the Tzedakah box—one coin per child—and slowly they pass the box around. (Tzedakah officially means justice or righteousness, but is usually translated as charity.) As a group, they sing “Tzedekah, Tzedakah, we should always give,” followed by: “Danny gives Tzedakah, Tzedakah, Tzedakah, Danny gives Tzedakah for…” and each child, in slow succession, finishes the sentence: “I give for people who don’t have shoes, food, homes, medicine.” (One: “I give Tzedakah for people who don’t have pools!”) They all spoke with so much confidence and faith. The child whose family is participating brings other items to donate—food and toys. The kids know why. I feel so grateful that this is built into my daughter’s education. That my child is learning that, as a citizen of the world, as one who can give, this is simply what one does.
Is it naive (and cliché?) of me to think that children are much, much wiser than us? Having been through the Viennese childcare system, which is highly subsidised and free or cheap to all, I’ve spent the last little while obsessing about our early childhood education problem in this country—and the belief that if we offered free, comprehensive, masterful preschool teaching, we wouldn’t end up with monsters in charge of the country and the world. (I’m not delusional, and I know there are, as my grandmother used to say, people who are “piece goods damaged,” but not that many.)
What these kids are learning—to be kind, compassionate, to listen, to share, to speak out, to love—is more vital than anything they learn subsequently. It is foundational, and something that we are now learning in the most horrifying way, cannot be taken for granted (and cannot be learned so late in life?). And as my mother learned while writing her books about children with challenging behavior, you need to intervene with these “problematic” kids at two or three years old. By the time they are being sent to the principal’s office or kicked out of school or sent to jail, it is too late. It starts this early. And yet: how can we make it affordable for everyone?
Anyway, I digress. This moment is forcing us all to think a little bigger, isn’t it? To see all we’ve been lucky enough to take for granted, and the things we can do to make this world what we know it can be for our kids, for ourselves, for people across the way, for the planet itself. I keep coming back to my Rabbi’s (!) TED talk, in which she references an old Jewish piece of wisdom that reminds us of an important truth (I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive me; one of you real Jews can correct me): That each of us is both an infinitesimal spec in the universe, and an almighty powerful force. We are all both. We must be both, we must acknowledge both: Our irrelevance and our relevance. Our humility and our power. Our interconnectedness and our individuality.
The jealousy peaked when the second round of pregnancy announcements started to roll in. By then my daughter was 2 and I was 37, but neither my husband nor I had broached the subject of a second child. Instead, my tactics were cheap, comments lobbed at inopportune moments: I mentioned my (old) age and boy names I liked, and reminded him that we had to “get it done” before we left Europe, our temporary (family-friendly) home. When I got salmonella poisoning from eating bad chicken, I secretly hoped my symptoms meant I was pregnant. My husband prayed they didn’t.
Our avoidance of the discussion, followed by our inability to agree on trying for another, was heartbreaking. It seemed to symbolize some fundamental rift in our marriage: Almost everyone we knew had — or was trying for — more than one child. Why couldn’t we handle it, too?
I wrote this whopper for The Cut. Please read on here.
Summer’s over! It’s freezing here in Vienna! To celebrate the arrival of fall (here we do it with Sturm; YUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMM), I have two old new pieces to share.
The most recent is a remembrance of the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, the brilliant neurologist/writer, who passed away a few weeks ago. I was lucky enough to study with him at Columbia; here I write about how he called me “the girl who writes about pain,” for Guernica. (Not exactly how a person generally wants to be known, but look, I’ll take it.)
Last week Lauren Apfel and I duked it out on Brain, Child on the question of whether we should be posting photos of our (admittedly adorable) kids on social media. Is it a fun way to show them off connect with other parents or wildly unethical an invasion of their privacy?
A question for our time. What do you think? Join the conversation here!
Many of you know that I met my husband because of a piece I wrote for The Forward in 2008. Now the paper has made a short video about our epistolary/hurricane/cross-continental romance, which means that David will become the first goy Jewish movie star and I will become a beacon of hope for single Jewish girls everywhere.
Watch it here!A huge thank you to Nate Lavey and Blair Thornbourgh, who made the short and wrote the story. We are dying of embarrassment love it!
PS: Notice the menorah in the background during the interview. Totally unintentional strategic.
Seriously, don’t even bother getting jealous, because here’s all I’ve seen: the inside of an apartment; my computer screen; the rain. The timing of this trip is a little wonky due to a tight deadline for a piece I’m super excited about—news on this later—but suffice it to say, one doesn’t come to Paris to see one’s own words being written and then deleted on a screen.
In the span of three days, I have managed to eat one croissant and a sort of embarrassing amount of paté, so things are looking up.
Also, today I saw this insane osteopath, which is what I’m here to tell you about.
When I came to Paris three years ago in an enormous amount of pain and completely desperate for someone to heal me, the first thing I told Noelle was that I had had surgery and that it had been a failure.
“Don’t you have peasants back in the U.S.?” she asked. She said “paysan” because this whole conversation was being conducted in French, so this might not actually translate as peasant, but suffice it to say, I took her to mean someone with miraculous hands, but no medical training. In other words, someone who would be arrested for touching you back in New York.
Her “paysan”—who turned out to be an osteopath—came highly recommended, so even though I had been traumatized by a particularly bad one in New York who shoved his fingers where they shouldn’t have gone botched my X-Rays, charged me $500 and called me “sweetie,” I went.
M. Balard wore a loose-fitting blue silk shirt and black slacks. His brown hair flopped on either side of his head like a puppy’s ears. Like Noëlle, he didn’t care about MRIs or X-Rays.
The office windows that faced the bustling street were slightly ajar. I stripped down to my bra and underwear—the French don’t believe in gowns—and positioned myself on his table.
His approach was positively acrobatic: He twisted me into positions I was convinced would land me in the ER; he shook my pelvis in a way that even the most adventurous sex never had. One of the most scandalous maneuvers involved me sitting with my legs straddling the table while he stood behind me with his arms wrapped around my torso in a giant, backwards bear hug. Together we would curve to the right, forward and then to the left in a quick, rolling motion, like I was back in a modern dance class. I basically spent the whole session hoping he wouldn’t paralyze me.
He did five or six different crazy things, collected my money, and sent me on my way.
But slowly, I started to feel better, so I returned several times for more.
A week before leaving Paris—I spent two months working with Noëlle—I went for a visit. By then things were on the up—hours or a full day would open up before me uninterrupted by pain. I credited Noëlle and M. Balard in equal measure. My life—or, a life, for this didn’t resemble any life I had had before—was coming back to me. Happiness doesn’t begin to touch the surface of what I felt. Free at last was more like it.
“I need to see you one more time,” I said, opening up my datebook.
“No,” he replied. “We’re done.”
In all my years of forking over enormous sums of cash—and a little piece of my hopeful heart—to healers, never had one of them refused my money.
“Everything is in its right place now,” he said. “Now your body has to teach your mind how to not be in pain anymore.”
My pain pathways, he explained, were overdeveloped, so they would scream at the slightest disturbance. But when these pathways started to understand that there was nothing wrong—the bones and ligaments were now finally where they should be; I was no longer technically “injured”—they would learn to quiet down, and the pain would slowly recede. I literally just had to believe it, to convince my brain that that was true.
It turned out he was right.
So every time I come back to Paris, I go see him and we do our weird acrobatics. Today he told me, with a huge roll of the eyes and this funny “bof” sound the French make, that everything felt so much better than it had three years ago.
This doesn’t mean I’m never in pain—I’m lying in bed as I type this—but it doesn’t last, and I tend to still panic panic less. There’s hope.
My next question is: Did it make you fat? I swear to God, these Harrods All Butter Crunch Biscuits — pictured at right, yes one of them is half eaten — are going to be the death of me. David tried to convince me that they were semi-healthy because they contain oats. (Oats are listed after flour, salted butter and brown sugar.)
He and I bought said death-sentence treats on a wonderful week-long trip to Oxford and London, where we stayed with dear family friends in Hampstead. We barely left the gorgeous five-story townhouse went to the National Portrait Gallery where we looked for the nap room were convinced that every single portrait was of Freud. We also drank a lot of Guinness tea and ate an absurd number of scones with clotted cream and jam. I almost got run over every single day once before getting used to looking RIGHT when crossing the street.
The highlight of the trip was a long morning talk I had with our 70-year-old hostess. She lived most of her adult life in Nepal and India and practices yoga and meditation for four hours a day. She reminded me that for neurotics like us — East Coast Jews — meditation practice helps us “get out of our own way.” We practiced the complete yoga breath together (or what others call three-part breath): inhale into your low belly, mid-belly, upper chest; then exhale from the bottom up. After a brief session, we both landed a little more firmly on the earth. (She employs it during family vacations. Take note.) So I’m hereby re-committing to a sitting and brief pranayama (or breathing) practice once a day.
After that, I’ll have a cookie. One needs incentive after all.
In other news, if you haven’t yet read my piece about Munich — in which you’ll learn all you ever wanted to know about German pools! — you can do so HERE. I’ll love you forever. If you repost it, I’ll love you into my next life. xox