I love having English majors and just readers in general in my life. Jennifer has recommended that I read several books that were life changing and horrific, books which I could not recommend to anyone else unless we knew one another nearly as well as Jennifer and I know each other. I have come to believe that English majors are the one subversive group that keeps BYU in the real world. The knowing Relief Society sisters make a similar contribution in our wards and stakes.
One book Jennifer recommended, the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr., took me back to the edge of the black hole of my worst and hospitalized depression. But it reminded me that at the time I didn’t let myself teeter into that abyss never to return and assured me that dropping or jumping into that deep hole wasn’t a foregone conclusion for the future.
Another book that Jennifer recommended was Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. And after reading that book I readily snapped up Michael Chabon’s just released Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son.
This can be a profane book and no amount of caution can prepare you for it, but the art of reading is to wisely pick and choose, and I would like to relate some of what Chabon has to offer. I did read it over to Judy, and she said that she couldn’t relate to any of it—it spoke so differently from her own experience. “Maybe because it’s a male memoir, maybe because of its Jewish perspective, maybe because the writing is almost stream of conscience like you speak,” she opinioned.
Still I like how Chabon got at how I feel when I’m with family across generations—visiting one-on-one, as a small group, or big like Thanksgiving. When we’re together and truly engaged, the differences are bracketed out and we’re contemporaries. And I have great joy.
Chabon reflects on his daughter’s recent bat mitzvah (at age 13)/ pgs 302-306:
“She is young and strong, and I am graying, have acid reflux, and my neck hurts, and soon I am going to be dead, true though all of these statements may be. First of all, I feel that I am in the prime of my life. I have never understood more (though still very few) of life’s mysteries than I do now, or trusted my instincts to a greater degree . . . In spite of the creaky neck and the occasional needle of fire in my belly, my bones, joints, and organ remain more or less in good working order. . . [he’s 45 yrs old]
“And looking at my fine half-grown daughter as she led the afternoon service, her slender neck arched like a feat of engineering, her alto steady, clear, and shining like the silver pointer that she clasped in her hand as it traced the path of the Hebrew letters on the parchment before her, I found myself considering not time’s passage but its unfathomable stillness, its immobility, the great universal fiction that there is such a thing as time. Your children’s childhoods as you watch then unscroll are always indexed to your own, visibly and invisibly, their incidents and episodes, pleasure and calamities snarled with your own. Your childhood, or your memory of it, is present in every moment of theirs, answering it and prefiguring it and shadowing it like a continuo. And then every so often something happens to erase all sense of difference between you, as on one of those multigenerational Star Treks when the old Enterprise and the new both show up fifty years apart, at the same quantum singularity, a gateway through time, and Captains Kirk and Picard take each other’s measure. There is no future and no past, and they are both in the prime of their lives. There is only ever now, and they each inhabit it.
“Like gravitational wormholes in the fabric of the universe, children collapse time and space around themselves. I was standing just behind Sophie for part of the time that she spent reading from the Torah, and her silver yad, its tip formed in the shape an effete little pointing hand, seemed to careen down the column of ancient text, to fly like the thirty-one years gone since the day that I stood in a dusty-rose three-piece suit with white piping at the lapels, reading from that crazy old rolled-up book of lies, laws, and wonders. We hoisted our prayer shawl higher and swallowed, took a breath, then set off again down the column of Hebrew letters. For an instant, past and future perfectly coincided. She was not rising and I was not setting. Because the lives of a child and a parent are not a pair of counterweights, dragging the hands of a clock around its sorry dial, one rising and the other falling at exactly the inexorable rate of gears and passing seconds. Or perhaps they are, but if so, it’s a process that is happening still, much too slowly for me see it. All I could see that day for an hour or so, in that high sunny room with a blue-painted ceiling and everyone we love and care about around us, was my wife and my daughter and me, neither passing nor being passed but here together for a while, hanging out in the middle of life.
“We are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves, of our lives and histories, in terms of the succession of generations—“Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation”—that we no longer even question the validity or truth of the idea, which apart from the most strictly biological sense, has no real meaning and no basis at all in the way we live those lives or experience our histories as they unfold. There is only one time, and one life, and we all share them, and if there is a torch, then it is far too cumbersome and heavy to be passed.“When the dancing began—we started, of course with a hora—I escorted my daughter to a sturdy chair, and a bunch of us, young men and old, graceful and ungainly, stout and fit, took hold of the legs and hoisted her up. There were far more of us than chair legs or places to grab them, and yet somehow, lurching and laughing and tripping over own and one another’s feet, we got her up into the air and managed to dance. She tossed and shone like a torch as we carried her around the room, all of us working together to trace our passage across the dance floor, like the silver yad flying along the letters of the oldest story in the world. I looked up at her, grinning and beautiful and terrified and happy, and felt not the same old “time is fleeting and we are all mortal” but something finer and simpler and harder even to bear in mind. This is our life happening, I told her, or would have told her if I could have caught my breath long enough to say it over clamor the clarinet and fiddle, and it’s happening right now.”