” I wish you would stop drawing. We were done with that foolishness.
Please don’t call it foolishness any more, Papa, I said.
They stared at me and were very quiet. My father’s face was going rigid. I saw him swallow. My mother was pale.
Foolishness is something that’s stupid, I said. Foolishness is something a person shouldn’t do. Foolishness is something that brings harm to the world. Foolishness is a waste of time. Please don’t ever call it foolishness any more, Papa.”
“Then I was back in my bed and the darkness returned and with it the memories and horror of the night. To draw, to make lines and shapes on pieces of paper, was a futile indulgence in the face of such immutable darkness, a foolishness I would certainly leave behind when I entered the world beyond the window of our living room. ……..
I would grow up.”
(from Chaim Potok’s novel, ‘My Name Is Asher Lev‘)
When do you grow up? What is the moment when you realize: I’m an adult?
I remember when I was younger, I thought it would be when I saw a movie all by myself, in a movie theatre. That is something I had never done and the act seemed to have a melancholic maturity to it–
Then I saw a movie alone in a theatre–Brattle Theatre, Cambridge Square, 2005–it was ‘Crash’–the showing was late–a man I bumped into coming out of the theatre said ‘watch it, lady’. Nobody had ever called me ‘lady’ before. I sat on a curb somewhere between Cambridge Square and Sommerville, talking to J on my cell phone in the hot summer night. Eleven o’clock at night. I had to be up by 430 next morning. I was crying because I was lonely. I was overworked and underslept and lonely.
I did not feel like an adult.
I threw my shitty life out the window and moved to Germany.
I apprenticed in a Japanese restaurant for two years and lived my George Orwell nightmare/dream.
I got married.
Now I have a kid.
I still do not feel like an adult.
Kabbalah divides the world into two areas and everything under creation fits into one or the other: Sitra D’Kedushah (the side of holiness) and Sitra Achra (the side of impurity, or the Other Side.) This is the side of evil God created with some trepidation, thinking man’s holiness will be more precious if he earns it by fighting temptation through his own free will.
In Potok’s novel, eponymous Asher Lev, a Hassidic Jew living in Brooklyn with his mother and father, is born with a gift for drawing. By age six, he is astounding people with what he can draw, but the older he grows, the more convinced everyone around him is that this gift is from the Other Side.
The problem is not even his talent–it is his dedication. So strong is the urge to draw that he neglects his schoolwork, his study of Torah, he makes no friends, he is disrespectful to his parents, he steals to keep himself in art supplies, he smuggles himself into museums to learn how to draw the forbidden images of Jesus Christ and nude women–his dreams are consumed by drawings–when people speak to him, he hears them only with a half-ear.
Drawing devours all of his energy; he becomes sick and lethargic from too much drawing and lives like someone in a dream from which they can’t wake up. The Other Side, they shake their heads around him, this is not a gift, it is a
temptation sent from the Other Side.
When will you grow up, Asher? His father keeps asking. When will you give up this foolishness?
Oh drawing, oh writing, oh foolishness!
When will you grow up? I ask myself. I have a cosmic connection to this book, feel close to it, though in many ways the characters are so removed, but they make me believe in some concept of ‘humanity’, of some connections that nothing can smear away; not time, not religion, not nationality.
I read Potok and think: I have wasted so much time with writing. There are perhaps thousands of pages on my computer that I have written. I have wasted so much time drawing. Hundreds and hundreds of drawings. I have neglected my duties–I have stayed up late at night, early in the morning. I have thought only of what I wanted to write, without consideration for what people around me wanted. I have hurt people around me, because they could tell that when they were speaking, I was not listening. I wanted to, but the urge to write something in my head, so that I could write it down later on paper, on my computer, was stronger than my consideration for their feelings.
Do you have a piece of paper? In a cafe, on the u-bahn, anywhere and then please don’t talk to me for a bit, scrawl, scrawl, scrawl, scrawl, scrawl.
What kind of Jewish boy doesn’t study Torah? Asher’s father rages. The boy answers that he finds nothing WRONG with studying–it’s just that drawing asks him for all of his time. He must give it up.
I have made myself sick writing. I have had days when I did nothing else for daylight and nightlight–where I woke up in the middle of the night and went straight to drawing. I do my work to earn some money, but always with an air of resentment–this is taking away my time, I think. In the past, J has worried. I’d collapsed over writing–this is pointless, this is stupid, this is a waste of time, why can’t I stop doing it?
Once he said, I worry you’re going to cross over and not come back.
Cross over where? I am not religious, but yeah… You feel this pull. Is it evil or good? You cannot be sure. Creating something cannot be bad… right? But how do you assign it worth or value? The worst is when it does not MATTER anymore if it is good or bad–you can’t stop doing it, any more than you can stop breathing. You think–this is a drug. When I can’t think of anything else, there must be something wrong. But you can’t stop.
I have a very good friend who’s father was a musician and artist. He said to me once that his father tried to be a good father, but ultimately, his music and art always came first. As a son, he could never quite forgive him for the neglect he suffered because of this. I worry for (–). I worried even before I had him, before he was conceived, when he was just a thought–what if I will be like that? Nobody thinks they will neglect their kid or be a bad parent, but obviously, it happens. Now he is here. Taking care of him demands a lot of time and energy. When I sleep at night, even I am too exhausted to think about writing. I close my eyes and it’s dark immediately. What I write here in this public diary is not even writing–it doesn’t satisfy the urge, this is just an overflow, an outpouring. You put a paper under and it soaks up the excess shit in your soul.
My mother says: When will you write like Ken Follett? I want to show my friends the things you write, but your stories are so vulgar. You write WELL, she says, but why must you write about these ugly things? Why can’t you write about history? You could write a historical novel about Japan.
I could, but I can’t. Those are not the stories that are in me.
Those are not the stories I find myself writing when I stare into the u-bahn window across from me and see the ghost of my face and all the faces sitting next to me. The stories I see then are about loneliness, exile, foreignness, friendship, sexual rejection, the search for something divine, or something or someone to believe in.
But there is nothing about history.
I think, (–), I’m going to try. Asher Lev’s parents become increasingly ashamed of him. They cannot explain him to their Jewish community. I don’t want to be an embarrassment to J or (–)…’What does your mom do?’ ‘…well, she sits at home all day and… writes… and draws… things she never shows anybody….’
It can’t be a good example for a kid!
Sometimes, I think about going back to school. I’m going to learn German and stop living in exile. I could get a phD. That is respectable? I make the promise often, but then I write something. I draw. It’s washed away. The time, again, is gone. Oh, the fucking Other Side! But I couldn’t give it up. If I stopped writing and drawing, I would be miserable. I do scrabbly little jobs on the side to earn some money and not feel like a complete dead-beat deadend-weight in this household.
Like going to W’s. We’ve resumed our sessions again. This makes me happy, because I’ve really missed him the last two weeks– he is someone who also spends his whole day with his art, but with him, I feel it’s more legitimate. It’s his escape, I believe. –I sit on the bed with (–), I take him with me for his very first modeling session, at two weeks old. W draws us and we talk about art– I tell him I’ve dedicated this year to technical improvement and experimentation–I hope maybe next year to be technically competent enough to start with oils–W waves his hand.
Technique isn’t everything, he tells me.
I don’t know. I answer. I feel all these pictures I want to draw, but what keeps me back from drawing them well is my lack of technique.
I’ve seen some things you’ve drawn, he says. Your technique is good. But you focus too much on technique. You see too much maybe how the picture SHOULD be and then you are disappointed. Why don’t you try to draw and let the picture be what it wants to be?
Loosen up, Hazel would say.
What is the point of a drawing?
What can a drawing do?
What can a story do?
And do some people just never grow up? Even when they’re married, and have kids, and are getting older every day?
I suppose it’s best to not even question it.