For so many years, I was the girl waiting for the train, scribbling. I was not the man in the cowboy hat on the roof of an old brick building, the man I am watching now, blowtorch in hand, burning some ancient duct near the Granville El. I was not the tight-shirted guy in the next building over, hammering a new roof from scratch, the bare wood beams visible to all, like a naked man, unexpected, embarrassing, like a skeleton the living are not allowed to see. I was not the streetlight left on in daylight by mistake, in a broke city that can’t afford to err. The scribbling years were all intentional, the deferred dreams the dreams I chose to defer, so that now I am exactly like the old man who first taught me, who said he writes on yellow legal pads on trains next to executives who stare in disbelief or wonder.
How I loved him, how I love him. Though he is dead now, to me he and all poets live in present tense. Even he was too embarrassed to write poetry on public transit after a while, he confessed. So on trains he scribbled notes. In long lines, in what might look like an actual job—and now that I am more than half the age the old man was when he taught me, I understand the pressure to have an actual job, to look like it, and also I have discovered that I am not embarrassed at all. I am who I am, a scribbler in public, a parasite, a believer. I look at the scribbling girl less than half my age waiting for the train, oblivious to the blowtorch on the roof, the tight-shirted man and his pectorals, the streetlight left on in daylight and I thrill for the past. On the platform I discreetly dance in remembrance, in gratitude for all the years I could not wait to get home to write and so I wrote right there, anywhere, by daylight or streetlight, and once in a while, barefoot, by the glorious shine of starlight.
Guitar Music in the Desert
Nearly midnight in the student dorms in the city of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and what do I hear but guitar, played loud, live, next door, by a neighbor who sounds no more than twenty-three? How long have I been in so many deserts, but not this one: Be’ersheva, desert capital, four thousand years old. Abraham’s city, or so we are told.
Through all my deserts, Biblical and secular, I have remained on a student budget, and here I am, twenty years past graduation, writing in a borrowed dorm on the green couch and wooden coffee table with the glass showing welts in bamboo and outside, there is Rachel, who came here from Moscow and now upholsters furniture for a living and bargains like a desert hooligan, a pirate of the sands.
I saw her lift a couch, alone, like a man.
Why is it that in this emptiness I feel full? Give me just this: sleep, sand, language, music. An upholsterer with my mother’s name, Rachel, selling her wares to penniless students at midnight, reminding me that anything can be transformed. Recovered. Lifted. Let the patriarchs take care of the rest.
-- Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York. She is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau / Penguin Random House), which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist, and one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Religion Stories of 2015. She is The Forward's language columnist and a former poetry columnist for BarnesandNoble.com; she has received a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an Illinois Arts Council grant, and a Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Fellowship, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry.