death. week 5.
city. new york city
I have the sinking realization that it isn’t a terribly good idea for me to spend this much time with my own thoughts.
“It is not good for man to be alone,” said the Lord.
Some things are best kept hidden. Even from myself. Especially from myself.
Some thoughts are unbearable.
When I arrived home from work early today, I intended to write something for my death project. I wanted to create a list of all the things in my life that died.
Instead, two hours later, I find myself hunched over Kristeva’s Power of Horror, darkly ruminating over the horror of my own existence.
I find that naked existence is a terrible fate. It is the only experience that, outside of suicide, is truly inescapable. I am locked in a prison of my own Being. There are no two ways about it. I am powerless, miserable, terrified.
Normally, I’d spend all of my waking time ignoring the fact that I exist. But, give me a couple days of alone time and… all roads lead to existence.
And yet, to imagine it is unbearable. I do everything I can to avoid it. Forget it. Resist it.
I am perched at the edge of sanity.
I peer over the edge. I crane my neck. I lift a foot.
And am shoved backwards. Violently.
I regain my balance.
But what did I see?
I forbid myself from saying. I won’t even tell myself. I prefer the lie. I choose safety. I am afraid of the dark.
When the walls tremble, threatening to cave in, what lies on the other side?
I bare my existence like a cross. I accept my sentence and serve my time.
I am a far cry from that prophet, Socrates, who blesses the poison that killed him.
Leave god to the mystics, consciousness to the gurus, and love to the poets.
I hoist a white flag, surrendering my position.
Why do I continue to chase those allusive treasures, working toward something that does not exist?
I want to trust Jesus, the Buddha, Socrates, and all the rest of those lunatics. I want to have faith in something more. I want to maintain a modicum of hope.
But deep down I’m just fucking scared.
Scared of my mind,
Scared of the world,
Scared of life,
Scared of god.
Scared of myself.
And then, all that’s left is death.
My List of Dead Things
My Brother Tzvi
It is impossible to separate the concept of death from Tzvi. On the contrary, without Tzvi, death couldn’t exist. It would simply be a word. A concept. Tzvi is what death is made of. He fills it like water fills a glass, running over the edges.
My childhood died along with Tzvi.
I had never considered this until right now. But as soon as I wrote those words, I began to cry. I guess I touched a nerve.
Kristeva says that the abject can never successfully be removed. But it can be repeated. And, if you’re lucky, you repeat it in such a way that it begins to heal.
In repetition, there is variation. And growth. Even while remaining the same.
Is it possible that I blame myself for Tzvi’s death? Do I feel guilty? Do I feel guilty for continuing to live without him?
Is that why I apologize? For everything. For everything and to everyone. Is that why I feel unworthy, undeserving even of life itself?
Or did I also die on that night in august, along with Tzvi? Killed myself so that I stay with him. Condemning myself to live out the remainder of my life without a soul. An empty, meaningless, lonely, cold body.
Am I dead? What the fuck am I even saying.
God used to be my best friend. My greatest teacher and my most loving father.
Until I realized that he didn’t exist.
It took me years to fill that void in my life. I filled it with actually friends, actual family, and actual teachers. Most of all, I filled it with myself.
Where I had trusted god, I learned to trust myself. Where I had served god, I now serve myself. Where I had loved god, I am learning to love myself.
When god died, someone needed to take his place.
All of the treasures that I once sought for in god, I am finding carefully buried deep inside myself. Like that Hasidic story of the man who circled the globe searching for buried treasure, only to find it under his bedroom floor once he’d given up and returned home.
As a teenager, I always assumed that the answers were somewhere out there. But each day, each year, the answers seemed to grow increasingly distant.
Like the Psalmist, I became obsessed with the gaping wound that kept me separated me from my beloved.
I felt confused. Lost. Bad. Evil. Wrong. Sinful.
I remember, far too late one night in my late teens, that I called my rabbi in tears, convinced that I was bipolar. The harder I tried to pursue holiness, the more filthy I felt. I was literally torn in two, at war with myself.
I eventually gave up on finding my answers in religion. So I went to university to study philosophy.
And philosophy? Philosophy taught me to let go of the answers and just enjoy the questions.
After all, that’s all that we can get from life, questions. It’s up to me to create (and recreate) my own answers.
I gradually allowed my hopes, dreams, and expectations to simply die.
I had to die to start living.
Letting go was the hardest thing I’d ever done. As long as I held onto some kind of structure or purpose, I knew the rules. I knew what I could and could not expect. I felt stable. Safe. I was still a depressed piece of shit and a perpetual failure, but at least I was reaching for something. I was part of something. Something real and powerful.
Letting go of religion, and science, and philosophy; letting go of everything left me empty.
I wake up in the morning, and there’s… nothing. Just an endless expanse of time, and nothing and no one to fill it with.
I found myself back with myself. Back with the question. Back with nothing. And no one.
I remember telling one of my philosophy professors that I often wake up and find myself unable to move. Not out of any physical paralysis, but because of a realization that there’s literally nothing to do. Every possible action is equally ridiculous, so I just lay there and wait.
I thought that I had touched on some great philosophical discovery, but my professor glanced over at me said, “I think you’re just depressed.”
Oh well. I guess everyone has to start somewhere.
I start with that pure kind of negative freedom. That blank canvas that is frozen in between nothing and everything. No matter what happens, freedom lives within me. Am I willing to pay the price?
This was a funny period. Fun and funny. And so unexpected.
Who could imagine that work, God’s curse to Adam, could be meaningful??
I dreamed of starting my own company and growing it to a million in revenue. Then a billion. I wanted to know what financial success looked like, tasted like. But more than that, it felt good to wake up every day with something to do.
Productivity, something I often have trouble finding, comes easy in the workplace. I could just set my mind to a task and voila, at the end of the day I’d feel accomplished. And even get paid for it!
But of course, the day came (and the day always comes) when I realized that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. And so, with tears in my eyes, I said goodbye to my partner, and my plans, and started all over again.
There’s a paradox here. There can only be one first love.
But haven’t there been several people who so capture your soul that you could swear you’ve never tasted love like this?
Actually, there can never be second loves. All true loves are a first.
What comes to mind when I think back to those moments? Those women? Aparna, Hannah, Lucienne…
I feel tenderness. (I think that’s another feature of love. Like trauma, it can never go away. It can change into something else, perhaps unrecognizable, but it never fully disappears.)
I feel a desire to reach out to them. To see if there’s anything I can help them with. Or make them laugh. But no, they are in the past, and I know that’s for the best.
Besides, Lucienne hates me, Aparna can’t stand me, and Hannah… well Hannah is still here. I should reach out to her.
Love is never an accident. It’s always a miracle.
And that brings me to number 7. I may be the first man to openly admit this, but from the onset of puberty until the first time I had sex, I actually sincerely believed that sex is the answer to all of life’s problems.
And then I had sex for the first time. And guess what? Now I have even more problems.
The night I lost my virginity, I laid awake crying. I was digesting the fact that no matter how close I’d be to another person, I’d still always be completely alone.
Aparna, bless her soul, didn’t ask what was wrong. She just held me close.
Losing my virginity was the last thing I did which actually mattered. Everything since then has just been one big game.
Okay, I take that back. The night I first felt self-love also mattered. But that’s just another form of virginity. My inner-virginity lol
Gedolim are the ultimate father figures of the Jewish community. They are the Elders. The Wise.
I remember how I would grieve each time a gadol died. I’d go somewhere to be alone and process and cry. I’d cry for the loss of the world as a whole, but also the loss of my own world. A source of wisdom, goodness, holiness, and direction had disappeared.
The whole community would mourn. We were all left as orphans.
I had a fish last year. A betta fish which I bought as part of my love project. It lived for a few months and then died.
In between, though, I kind of grew to like him. But I still felt kind of relieved when his death occurred just before I left for Europe for a few months.
Prof. Adler was kind of like my mentor at the first college I attended. More than anyone else, he helped me bridge the gap between yeshiva and college. He helped me balance Jerusalem and Athens.
In some sense, he introduced me to the world, and then encouraged me to explore it. He encouraged me to be myself, and made me feel like there was nothing I couldn’t do.
Knowing that he believed in me helped me begin to believe in myself.
Prof. Adler died just as I was graduating from university. I still miss him.
I can’t really put my finger on the moment when I stopped depending on others. I suppose that there are many senses of dependence, many of which I still retain.
But there was a point where I began to take responsibility for my own life and stopped looking toward others for help and direction.
I know that the child inside of me will always be there. I know that deep down, I still crave care, love, affection, and comfort. But, at the same time, I really do believe that I have within myself the capacity to care, love, and comfort myself.
I sometimes see that as my life’s goal. The Greeks urge us to “Know thyself.” But I could sure do with some “Love thyself.”
I am always my own child.
Childhood, like sex, is one of those things you only notice once it’s gone.
Judaism was my life. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
All at once, my life was empty. I mean, how can you compete with god? Money, power, pleasure.. I don’t know, those are nice, but also kind of sad and lame.
It was only recently that I realized that I haven’t changed one bit. I’m still seeking something universal, eternal, final. I still search for gods.
I didn’t leave judaism behind because I no longer believed in god. I left judaism because it became clear that god wasn’t living there. I wanted the real deal. Not some nice stories and a kollel stipend.
Lately, though, I’ve been returning to Judaism through the back door. In my own way, I’m finding that I’m just as Jewish as ever. Among the rabbis, comedians, trouble makers, and melancholiacs, I feel like I fit in as well as anywhere. Even misfits fit in with each other.
There’s an insatiable thirst for spiritual exploration that is fueled by the deepest dissatisfaction, irreverence, and hopefulness.
I mean, what could possibly be more jewish than atheism? The people who invented monotheism must have been well versed in the denial of gods.
Like generations of Jews before me, I continue to worship words, and feel as though redemption itself is carved into their dark faces.
Tomorrow is Purim. I can still vividly picture those Purims long ago where we’d go out into the streets of Brooklyn, drunk as skunks, and dance the night away. Strangers would welcome us into their homes to drink, eat, and celebrate together.
Or, when I was alone in Bangkok, Amsterdam, or Netanya, all I would have to do was step into a synagogue for prayers and I’d leave an hour later with a place to stay and a meal to eat.
But community is not all rainbows and butterflies. With it comes judgement, gossip, and guilt.
These days all I really have are my friends and family. Other than that, I’m just a faceless number. In the streets I am invisible.
I’ve lost my community. I live alone.
As an introvert, there’s a tremendous relief in being alone. But there’s also the burden of being placeless, homeless. I don’t belong anyway. I never really fit in.
I serve as my only witness.
Doesn’t everything want to be named? Hegel says that our name is our existence. Like the wind against your skin, your name is what makes you known. Only ghosts can remain nameless.
I guess I just want to choose my own name. It’s okay to take my time. I just hope I get around to it before it’s too late. One day, I’d love to turn around and re-introduce myself. “Hi, my name is Daniel.”
Every night, just as I’m climbing into bed, I notice the close of another day and I feel just a bit closer to death.
According to Judaism, sleep is a sixtieth of death. That’s being optimistic. (It’s been a while since I’ve slept that deeply.)
Every morning is a promise.
Then the day unfolds. Like a flower or a mushroom cloud.
And then draws to an end.
Some days feel like an eternity and others flash past in the blink of an eye. But invariably the curtain closes and (hopefully) the audience goes home.
I love beds. They’re so intimate. They’re how we spend our first moments each morning and our last minutes every night. They support us in our most vulnerable moments; whether we’re crying or fucking. Sometimes even both at the same time.
I try not to dwell too much on my days. Seconds and months seem like more reasonable intervals.
Sometimes I just follow my breath, allowing it to set the pace. Paying attention to the rise and fall of each breath, each moment, each day, each project. There’s something comforting in that.
I sit on the couch. Staring at the blank television. How long have I been here?
I wait quietly as the flesh of life melts away from the cold white bones of existence.
Laying everything bare. There’s a reason why nudity is forbidden in public.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Like hot wax, each moment sears itself into my heart. Drawing me one step closer to the darkness
The sole consolation? At least it's inevitable.