do you know that i have written a book called 515 Clues? It’s true. It’s a non-linear narrative exploring moments of trauma and transformation in the lives of a handful of girls, queers and trans-people who communicate through bird song and candlelight, travelling through boundaries of time and reality to save each other. This combination of fiction, memoir, and graphic storytelling weaves a lineage of witchy magical Jewish survival through waking dream, myth, and the illumination of deep dark memory.
here is an excerpt:
Velvele, The Kley Zmer of Dybbukville
If you would, Dear Reader, take a moment away from your i-telephone, and come look with me into this steaming, stinking cauldron that the ancestors have prepared for us. The year is 1888. It is mid-June, the new moon in the Hebrew month of Tamuz, and we are wandering the countryside of Zaglembia, a region of Southern Poland, part of the Pale of Settlement. Our handsome and mysterious hero is a kley zmer – vessel of song – practitioner of that otherworldly vibrational experience now known as “klezmer music.” It has been seven years since the assassination of Tzar Alexander II, which many Christians blamed on the Jews, leading to waves of “retaliatory” violence, expulsion and anti-Jewish legislation. The Jewish heart, as usual, is mangled but tenacious, giving rise to beautiful, haunting, holy, and wholly unorthodox music.
Introducing Our Hero, Velvele
Velvele was from Dybbukville, that’s what he would tell people whenever they asked. And though nobody had ever heard of Dybbukville, they didn’t question him further, because it wasn’t a place anyone wanted to go or know about. He was a quick mover, handsome to glimpse out of the corner of your eye, you would like to look longer – curly-haired, gap-toothed, trumpet in hand, feet tapping the movement of his songs through the countryside. He always seemed to have purpose to his movements, and so avoided ever seeming like a shnorrer, although he had no home, no family, no steady employment, nobody to speak for him. He happened into town at the right moment, poured his heart into other people’s celebrations and ceremonies, articulated the rhythmic, vibrational truths of the moment, and then disappeared. This worked to his advantage, especially with the young girls who would often find him by the well or behind a barn after a wedding. He loved the way these girls looked at him with such trust, wanting to touch the mystery, just asking to be crushed. He didn’t want to crush them, he wanted to make them feel good, he would put his hand up under their skirts and move with them and he would feel the bright bright light inside with them, but when they clung to him afterwards he would peel himself away, with the excuse that the fates were against them. (“A fish and a bird may fall in love, but where would they build their home?”)
But even if there was a place for them – he had once been engaged, in truth, for a minute – the pressure to keep moving, to leave behind each story as it reached completion, it would build in him, and he knew these girls couldn’t take it, couldn’t hold his story, and he couldn’t keep holding it all forever, so he had to keep moving, it was his only option… And so, they were crushed, they wept, they hated him, blamed him for all the misery of their lives (when really he had given them one brief reprieve from it). They never gave him that open trusting look again, and so, he packed up his bedroll and moved on, looking to the next meal, the next girl, the next song.
The invention of the camera had slowly made its way to the shtetl, a man with a cart pulled by a goat would come through the streets, let children sit in it and pose for photographs. For one ruble he would take their picture, then return a month or so later to deliver a printed photo. Velvele first saw this man and his contraption while playing a wedding in Celadz. Velvele was trumpeting, penetrating the young ladies with the brassy zmer zmer zmer of his horn, while the photographer took pictures of the bride and groom, posed stiffly in their formal wear, looking tentative and hopeful under the huppah. Imagine – they could remember their most perfect moment, long after all spark and fizz had dissipated and they realized the terrible trick that had been played. They would keep the photo in a special place, look at it and try to feel a tiny bit of that possibility they had longed for. The photographer offered a useful service that Jews previously did not know they needed.
After the wedding, and after another moment with a beautiful young girl, Velvele headed out on the road, alone again, to chase after the next gig. He came upon the photographer walking along the dirt road through the Zaglembian countryside, and fell into step with him. Velvele with his pack and trumpet, Volf the photographer with his goat cart loaded down with bedroll, cup, and camera. Volf seemed an amiable sort, sad and wizened the way the best old men were, and Velvele found him easy to talk to.
Soon, quite out of character, as if he were speaking to an old friend or father figure, Velvele was boasting about the girl he had just spent an afternoon with. She was beautiful, the daughter of a scribe, flower of her papa’s kingdom. Her hair was golden-red, her nose flavored with tiny brown freckles which he had had the pleasure of tasting as he pushed her up against a poplar tree. He had left her there in that small grove of poplars, had kissed the top of her head, and disappeared before there could be any scene. He had learned by now not to listen to that small voice in him that said maybe this time, maybe this is the one, that maybe this girl could share his life, that she could be comfortable with constant motion, not ask too many questions, give him warmth when he needed it and play tough when necessary, be her own person and not demand things he was unable to provide. He always cut things off before that glimmer of delusion arrived on the scene, protecting only the source of the glimmer, which allowed for these momentary encounters with beauty.
“Ah, youth,” said Volf, and pulled a photo from his pocket. He stopped in the middle of the road and looked at it for a long time, lost in his head or his heart somewhere.
“Who is it?” Velvele asked, peering over his shoulder. It was a girl, maybe eighteen or nineteen, holding a child on her lap, perched on the edge of the goat cart.
“I kept this one for myself,” the man said, fondling the corners of the photograph. “I made myself an extra copy. I didn’t mean to, I meant no disrespect, I just, she looks so much like my Raiza…”
Velvele took the photo from him and looked deeply into it. The girl had a soft pillow of dark curls framing her face, woven into two long braids that fell over her shoulders, one of them suggestively trailing the shape of her breast, the curled tip of it lying just where he imagined a soft brown nipple was hidden. She looked at the camera without a smile, with a steady gaze that spoke directly to Velvele’s heart. Oh! His heart, it palpitated, pounded in his chest, his stomach felt woozy. Those eyes. How could he ever look away. A dark knowingness emanated from her soul, and a shiver erupted in his body.
What Was Decided
Here I am at a Zen meditation center in the middle of the Santa Lucia Mountains. There are thirty or so monks, about twenty of us practicing visitors, and then about a hundred tourists. The monks walk around with shaved heads and robes, sandals and spectacles, they hit gongs and blocks of wood at various intervals throughout the day to keep everyone on schedule. The tourists, who bring in the money that supports the monks, power-walk down the path with their visors and water bottles, talking about weddings and diets and their theories about the benefits of meditation.
Just a year ago, a forest fire ripped through these mountains, and five monks stayed behind to save their home. They fought the fire for twelve hours as it tore into the center from all four sides. They only lost two buildings. And now they are having the most brilliant, vivid wildflower June – all those seeds that hid out dormant for years waiting for light, they are busting out into the sunshine, defiant in their beauty. The burnt black mountains are underscored with Technicolor green, interrupted with the bright streaky reds and oranges, the blasphemous yellows, pinks and purples of newly blooming survivors. The gardens are full of orange-throated hummingbirds who look right at you if you ask. The stellar jays live among the people with bravado, stealing from purses, sitting around with their mouths open asking for food. I had a conversation with an adolescent jay who landed on a branch just a foot from my face and courted me, ruffling his bright blue feathers and tweeting handsomely. I was wrapped up in my own trip, I earnestly asked it how to release my pain, and it took a shit and flew away.
I swim in the sulfurous pool as often as I can, sing to the hummingbirds in the garden, negotiate with the spiders on the cottage porch, and meditate in the hot springs between formal sits. I strip in the changing room and bring my towel outside, drape it over my fake leg, which I prop up against a chair. Then I hop to the edge of the tub, grab hold of the rails and suspend myself, lifting my right foot over the lip of the tub and into the water. The act requires strength and coordination; the handrails are narrower than my hips and the ladder rungs are vertical, hard to locate. The two women in the tub watch me with strange veiled expressions, as if defending themselves. They are not used to seeing a three hundred pound one-legged, tattooed, whiskered femme naked in front of them, mastering a complicated physical task.
“Careful!” one of them cries and lunges as if to catch me.
“I’m good,” I smile, willing her to relax, willing myself too, feeling the movement of water and heat on my skin, the way it slides up and down in subtle rhythm. Light, patterned like fishnet on the skin of the water. Breathing. A dragonfly.
But after only a moment:
“So, how did you lose your leg?” It’s the woman with the dyed blonde hair, the one who jumped at me. I saw her in the dressing room, rubbing ointment into long symmetrical scars running horizontal along her hips, probably remnants of a weight loss surgery, the removal of skin after an intestinal bypass perhaps. She smiles at me expecting an answer. I look away.
What I want to say, the statement that will formulate in my mind later as the appropriate answer to such an inappropriate question, is this: That is never the first thing that I tell someone about myself. Then I would return my attention to the vibration of my cells as they meet the water, the way the heat bakes into me and catches my breath in tender places.
But, I have always had a hard time with boundaries. And I am feeling relaxed, kind of brave, and she asked. So, this is what I say.
My parents’ names are Morris and Maybelline, and I, their first child, they named Magdalen. There are various stories, on their end, about what might have happened. Maybe it’s because my great grandparents in Poland were first cousins. Maybe it’s because of Morris and all those drugs. Maybe it was because of that German Measles scare, or it was when Maybelline fell off a horse early in her second trimester and got amnesia. Or it was the time their foolish friends brought identical plastic milk jugs filled with water and kerosene to their home, and Maybelline drank from the wrong one. Any of these could have been the reason, theoretically, though the doctors say there is no way of knowing.
Or, maybe it was the isolation, all that time spent alone up in that little house on the hill while all their hippy friends worked and played in the valley below. You see, Morris and Maybelline, their community, had come to the woods of Tennessee to build a new life, a little utopia where they could return to the land and raise their children to be free. Morris had chosen this specific location for their little house, secluded, up the side of a big hill, built into the trunk of a leaning tree. They would rise together every morning and eat a breakfast of pancakes cooked on the kerosene stove, then he would trudge down the hill for the day leaving Maybelline to prepare food, clean, and organize their little one-room house. She painted the fronts of the cupboards light green and she sat at her treadle sewing machine, sewing tiny shirts and onesies, while Morris was in the valley digging, planting, harvesting, building, or running into town for supplies and doing odd jobs for the locals. Maybelline had to haul herself up and down that hill if she wanted to see anybody, and the bigger she got, the less she wanted to.
She would speak to me when she was up there alone. She would rock herself in the wooden rocking chair, the one real piece of furniture in the room, her hands on her belly, and sing, and tell the little creature inside that it could be whatever it wanted to be. Maybelline herself had wanted to become a nurse but didn’t have enough background in math and science, and it felt too hard to catch up. So she dreamt for her little one that it could be anything, anything it could dream for itself.
I, in that dark formless cave, becoming, I believed her. And so open and unformed, I was still a part of everything, so I reached out into the universe, into all the possibilities that existed or could ever exist, and I chose the very best things, the elements and energies that called to me, the specific souls who satisfied me most. I drew such an elaborate map there inside of her in blue veins and pink tissues, a shiny blueprint for my existence. But in all the intricacies of my plan, I forgot to make some key choices. I wanted the impossible. I wanted to stay in that no-place where all potential exists, that infinite opening that precedes a decision, to float and dream, forever!
But I had to be born. I knocked against Maybelline’s pelvis in that little one-room shack, until finally the medics came and carried her down the hill head-first, giving her aching pelvis a momentary rest. They loaded her stretcher into the ambulance and drove her out of the hollow on the winding road to the county hospital. Frustration! I had to move, but I couldn’t move. After two full days, the doctors finally cut me out. I had a big blue bruise across my little baby forehead. The doctors pulled on my left leg, which I held tucked up against me, protecting my work (I had not decided yet how I wanted it to grow). I was very cross. They took me away to speculate in private, and soon came back to give Morris and Maybelline the bad news: I was deformed. Probably also blind and retarded. Oh Morris and Maybelle were sad. “Why did I shoot up all those drugs,” Morris cried, but the doctors reassured him that it didn’t matter in the father. At sunrise, while Maybelline slept for the first time in days, Morris took me in his arms, and he said my name, and I looked into his soul, and I saw vastness, and he saw light, and I knew there would be trouble, and he knew I would be all right.
A letter came in the mail to our home in the hollow, from a family friend, Mrs. Goldblum. “I am so sorry to hear about your crippled child,” she wrote in a tight, managerial cursive. “Have you heard of the Shriners? They do wonderful things with children, they have whole hospitals full of kids with these birth defects. I’m sure they could help your poor Magdalen.”
I was just over a year old when they dressed me in a pair of overalls and a bright red jacket with a turtle on it, and Morris took me on a bus to Kentucky. I was learning how to walk, an up-down motion that worked well since I was so close to the ground. Morris played games with me on the bus, and at the hospital the receptionist showed us to the play area. There was a bright red metal top, a naked doll with hardly any hair, and a chair with a back that was shaped like a smiling cartoon bear.
I ran to Morris and clung to his leg.
“A bear!” I cried, trying to locate the ominous feeling inside me.
But it didn’t work. Morris left me there and went to talk to the Shriners and their doctor-experts.
Don’t be scared, little girl, the bear-chair smiled at me. We’re gonna have fun! Yesiree! The Shriners are grrrr-eat!
I glared at it, then scrunched up my face and pooped in my diaper.
Morris sat in the little room with the two doctor-experts in white coats and a Shriner in a red fez and a navy blazer. The doctor-experts explained to Morris that no, they would not be able to fix his daughter’s leg with a cow-bone, as Mrs. Goldblum had suggested. They would not be able to make Maggie’s leg grow. Her hip joint had not fully developed, the femur was just an inch or so long, puny and delicate like a bird bone. She would have a knee right up close to her hip, a little drumstick of a leg, with a foot that hung only halfway to the ground.
Morris took this in, and his stomach bottomed out, gravity pulling heavy, ugh. It didn’t sound so good.
But, they could, with some tinkering, help her to walk more normally. The doctor-expert suggested a series of operations over several years, first amputate the foot, then fuse the knee, then cut a few more inches off the end. This creates the appropriate length and shape to then be encased in an ectoskeletal prosthetic device, which she of course would wear, strapped tight, for the rest of her life. She would return to the hospital for a couple weeks every year or so, so they could build her a new contraption, chart her progress, and make adjustments as needed.
“We are sorry that we are unable to accommodate parental stays, but we do have visitors’ days,” they said in answer to the concern on Morris’ face.
Then the Shriner, a wither-faced white-haired old goat, leaned forward and confided in Morris something he didn’t say to everyone: His daughter was potentially very special. People with this specific malformation were often known to become geniuses, which could be harnessed for the good of society, if they started early.
“A child like this, you cannot allow her to feel sorry for herself. You have to dig in just deep enough to trigger the child’s unmitigated will – you just touch it – and it compacts itself into this tight ball of furious potency.” He illustrated with his hands. “If she is directed toward outward progress rather than inward wallowing, she might invent a new serum, or a mathematical theorem, or even find a husband.” He winked.
He did not share this last part, the most important part, though Morris could sense something almost metaphysical burning in the Shriner’s eyes: As a friendlier-looking sect of the Masons, the Shriners had an investment in honing the spiritual future of America. These children had important roles to play. They must be tended to carefully.
The Shriner and the doctor-expert looked at Morris expectantly.
Morris rubbed his nose. The other men blinked three times each.
“Oh, and, it’s free,” the Shriner smiled wide and reached out his hand.
Morris said he would think about it. He came and found me in a corner of the play area, sitting on the naked doll, hiding from the bear-chair, cranking the metal top furiously. He laughed at how silly I was being, then wrinkled his nose and changed my diaper there on the floor with the bear-chair giggling at me. We took the bus back home to Tennessee, to Maybelline and the hollow and the little pancake house on the hill.
A week later Morris was in town at the laundromat-diner, getting a cup of coffee while he waited for his wash, when a very strange thing happened. A man came in. Morris had never seen him before, though the town was small and there were seldom passers-through. The man was probably in his thirties, he wore a short beard (not the hippy kind), and his hair was cut just above his collar. He walked around the edge of the room, over to the jukebox, using chairs and other surfaces for support. Morris stared as the man selected three Hoyt Axton songs on the jukebox. One pant leg of his jeans had been cut very short, to accommodate his left leg, which hung only halfway to the ground. With every step, he would lower himself and then raise back up, a foot or more each way. Surely there was some struggle in his movement (it must have been hard on his knees and hips) but there was also a bounce to his step, and a trust in his environment to support him, which said something about his spirit.
But Morris couldn’t take that in. Morris was filled with dread. He couldn’t stop watching, his mind shocked and spiraling, listing every thing about this man that he didn’t like. He was so smug, like he thought people couldn’t even tell he was deformed.
“Our daughter can’t be like that,” he told Maybelline later that evening, gesturing emphatically, taking up all the space in the cabin. It looked too weird. It made him feel kind of sick. Maybelline, herself so young in the world, had no idea what to think. She cradled and rocked me in her chair. The men seemed to think they knew what to do. She loved her baby, and she wanted the best.
Things weren’t so great in their little utopia anymore. Life was feeling less ideal, less free. People were getting jealous and guarded, it was starting to get really cold, and one man had begun to lose his mind, wandering around naked under a blanket, clutching a bible, muttering to himself. It wasn’t long before our little family extracted itself and moved to the Great Northwest to be closer to Maybelline’s parents. (They, Constance and Harold, inspired by the back-to-the-land movement, had bought a piece of land and were building their dream retirement home.) Morris and Maybelline found a little house that was just ours, with indoor plumbing and electricity and a telephone. They bought higher and higher platform shoes as I grew, until I was wearing a metal brace which held my foot suspended in mid-air. It was time.
I was just a month past three years old when Morris and Maybelline took me to Portland and left me with the Shriners. Maybelline had taught me how to lie still for the doctors. She had explained that they would unscrew my foot and throw it away, so that they could give me a new, better one. But when it was time for me to lie on the cold metal table, Mama wasn’t there, and I struggled as three orderlies held me down and made me stare into the light. They didn’t even ask, they didn’t wait, and they were too strong for me to resist.
When Morris and Maybelline came to get me after the operation, Maybelline didn’t recognize her own daughter. An isolated ray of natural light streamed into the sterile room full of cribs, dust particles visible in the air around me. I sat up in my crib and smiled at her in a green smocked dress, but I didn’t look like the baby she knew. My little leg was bandaged, my foot missing. But there was something about my face that struck her, something in the eyes that scared her a little. I was gone.
What Maybelline didn’t know was that, in the time I had been there, god had found me. I had lain in that crib alone, waiting, feeling for the thread of a mother, for something to hold me safe and reassuring. I couldn’t find it, so I fell, and around me spread a thin hum, a hmmm that unfurled into a great web of nothingness. Into that web I climbed, searching for the map I had drawn for myself inside that womb-cave before time, and a voice came to me. It was not my mother, it was not comforting. It told me to keep close watch. If I watched for patterns in the fabric of reality, and if I followed them closely, they would lead me back to myself, eventually. Meanwhile, I would have to protect everyone from what I knew. I would have to act like a daughter.
some examples of my writing over time:
It’s a Big Fat Revolution
(originally published in Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, ed. Barb Findlen, Seal Press, 1994).
(published at nerve.com, 2000)
The Right Amount of Space
(from the Sins Invalid blog, 2009)
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF PUBLISHED WRITING:
“Conspiracy of Fuckers” (fiction)
Fist of the Spiderwoman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire
ed. Amber Dawn; Arsenal Pulp Press. 2009
“Dear Jimmy” (creative nonfiction)
Working Sex: Sex Workers Write About a Changing Industry
ed. Annie Oakley; Seal Press. 2007
“Body Sanctuary” (essay and poetry)
Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution
ed. Alix Olson; Seal Press. 2007
“It’s a Big Fat Revolution” (reprint)
A Transdisciplinary Introduction to Women’s Studies
ed. Arlene Avakian, Alexandrina Deschamps, Kendall/Hunt Publishing. 2002
“Balebustah Walks” (short fiction)
The Rendezvous Reader: Northwest Writing
ed. Novella Carpentar, Paula Gilovich, Rachel Kessler; Tenth Ave E. 2002
“The High Holy Days Are Not Sexy” (reprint)
Sex and Single Girls: Queer and Straight Women Write about Sex
ed. Lee Damsky, Seal Press. 2000
“Fishnets, Feather Boas and Fat” (personal essay)
Body Outlaws: Young Women Write about Body Image and Identity
ed. Ophira Edut, Seal Press. 2000
“The High Holy Days Are Not Sexy” (personal essay)
2sexE: Urban Tales on Love, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Getting’ it on
ed. Antonio Cuevas and Jennifer Lee, Frog Press. 1999
“Private Dancer: Evolution of a Freak” (personal essay)
Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability
ed. Victoria A. Brownsworth and Susan Raffo, Seal Press. 1999
“It’s a Big Fat Revolution” (personal essay)
Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation
ed. Barb Findlen, Seal Press. 1995
Magazines, Periodicals, Online Publications:
“Book of Rules: A Girl’s Guide to Doing What You’re Told” (poem)
phati’tude Literary Magazine
“Dear Nomy” column
“Activism Embodied: A Roundtable Discussion with Leslie Feinberg, Geleni Fontaine, and Shira Hassan”
Fall Issue, 2006
Columns and Interviews
“Sini Anderson: Preaching to the Queer,” profile
Jan/Feb issue, 2005
“Dan Savage,” interview
“Fan Club” feature
“Go, Fat Chicks!” guest column
January issue, 1998