Diego-Catto-B+W

The Chopping Block

Image: Benjamin Balázs

On the chopping block, her long curls, luminous in the room darkened room. A gleaming knife nearby.

On the chopping block, not only her hair, symbol of beauty and femininity, but also her hands, hands that had held babies mere breaths after birth, and lovers, and loaves of steaming bread, and once, a wounded bird, its body quaking in her cupped palms.

On the chopping block, not only her hair and hands but her papers, the pages and pages where she’d borne witness to the passage of time in a place where to measure time at all required focus, a fierce but undetectable defiance and refusal to lose track of the outside.

On the chopping block, along with her hair, her hands, and her papers, all of the flowers she’d grown as a form of wild contraband. She didn’t know if she could bear to watch their petals fly, severed from their heads and bodies, color strewn in all directions that some other woman would be told to sweep up later, to return the space to its immaculate state, revealing nothing of what was to happen here where her hair, her hands, her words, and her garden all lay in wait on the chopping block.

When no one was looking, she caressed its rough surface, planting her palms wide across the grain, the rings, feeling to see if the wood still had even the faintest pulse.

She closed her eyes and listened with her hands. Her neck ached due to the strained position of her head, but the more she tuned into the chopping block, the less she felt the pain of her own body.

The chopping block was drinking from her hands. She felt the movement of energy transferring as if in sacred agreement, as if her body and what remained of the tree’s body had been traveling towards each other for eons and now here they were.

On the chopping block, she was sure the cuttings suddenly brightened; she swore their color intensified the weaker she felt.

She heard a hushed voice just outside the door — low tones, the “s” sounds penetrating the thick wood. She pressed her left ear more firmly against the wood and directed her listening downward rather than outward. Harder and harder she pressed, until everything but the deepest, barely discernable warble disappeared.

Her breath slowed and a sensation of such peace flooded her limbs that for a moment she feared she might cry out as if in orgasm. A tiny gasp escaped her mouth. The heart of the world burned in her eardrum and it was then that she knew her work was complete. She’d given everything and would be gone long before the men came to finish her.

They didn’t know it; they’d look into her piercing eyes and feel something like satisfaction, something superior, something smug. But none of it could hurt her now. She was hollow and the chopping block held her secrets now, her life force, her legacy.

The chopping block looked like a stump, but was really an altar.

Diego-Catto-B+W

9/11, My Biological Clock, and Healing a Broken World

Just a few weeks before September 11, 2001,

I’d come home from an evening class, put my arms around my then-husband’s waist — we’ll call him Bryce — and said: “It’s time.” I meant time to start trying to conceive our first child. We’d been married just shy of two years, I was 27 and he was 35, and my clock was definitely starting to tick.

We had moved to Burlington, Vermont about a year and a half earlier and bought an adorable duplex downtown, back when housing in the Champlain Valley was still reasonably affordable on two modest full-time incomes. And while he had some fears about becoming a father, we knew from early in our relationship we wanted a family. I was the director of a Jewish student group at the University of Vermont, and he was newly self-employed, doing work related to renewable energy. The Master of Fine Arts degrees we’d each earned in creative writing sat untouched, his rolled up and mine framed, both collecting dust as we went out the business of figuring out how to support ourselves and make a life.

That day in late August as I walked down Maple Street from the tiny yoga studio on South Union, the light on Lake Champlain looked not unlike the way I’d imagined the light people describe who’ve after near-death experiences. It didn’t just reflect on the water; it seemed to be the water itself, consuming, warm, and white. I heard a voice, the inaudible kind that’s hard to explain to other people: “I will be your teacher,” it said. And I knew right away what, if not who, it was: The child who was ready to be ours.

Students returned for the fall semester and my work at UVM kicked back up into high gear. As the Hillel director, a significant part of my job was to organize high holiday services on campus. We borrowed a Torah from a local synagogue and I made Xerox copies of services into welcoming booklets.

At 27, I was barely a decade older at most than the students I was leading, but I took my role as a leader and mentor seriously and wanted to create a spiritual and meaningful container for us to come together during this sacred time of year. I’d even bought a special outfit for the High Holidays: A silky tank and peach-colored skirt, run through with deep orange stitchwork and tiny mirror-like beads. Wearing it, I felt professional. Like a real grown-up. Like what I imagined a woman and a wife and someone ready to become a mother. must feel like.

On the morning of September 11, I drove to Cherry Street to pick up my newly pressed outfit. The sky was a piercing blue, the kind that makes you want to sing out loud, burst into tears, and talk to strangers on the street — all at the same time. I parked at a meter, crossed the street, and jingled the door as I entered the small dry cleaner’s. A woman behind the counter and a customer were talking and looking up at the small TV screen hanging in the corner of the room. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Something about a plane crash in New York,” one of them said. I felt a wave of concern, though neither of them seemed particularly worried. I collected my clothes, paid, and rushed to turn on the car radio. I started to realize that this was something. Something big.

I sped home and yelled for Bryce to turn on the TV. The previous owners had never disconnected their cable, a fact that had allowed us to enjoy West Wing. ER, and Friends each week on their respective nights. We sat down on the couch, the first “real” piece of furniture we’d bought together. One of the Twin Towers was on fire. I burst into tears, trying to get a handle on what was happening. As we watched, mouths agape, a plane flew directly into the second tower.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” I repeated, the shock of what we were witnessing coursing through my veins. I felt convinced I knew hundreds of people at the scene even though it would turn out just a few people I knew were downtown that day. My roots as a New York Jew were three generations deep; I’d gone to college uptown but ventured below 14th Street often for a homecooked meal at an aunt and uncle’s loft in Tribeca. I had taken many walks to Battery Park with my aunt Nancy, who had died in a 1998 plane crash. I remember being grateful that she wasn’t there, to witness what was now happening.

The terror of that morning together with my position as a campus leader gave me a sense of purpose; after making shocked calls to a handful of close friends and family members, I reached out to some students and put out the call that the Hillel office would be open that evening for anyone who wanted to come be in each other’s company. There was no comfort to give, but being together felt urgent, like something to cling to.  Rosh Hashanah began just five days later, and Yom Kippur ten days after that. Reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer, described as “a religious poem that is meant to strike fear in us,” took on an extraordinary and chilling depth of meaning that year.

A few weeks later, Bryce and I marked our second anniversary at a resort in Stowe. A colleague of his had won a free night and for some reason offered it to us. Not ones to splurge, we took advantage of the opportunity to do something special. I was still deeply shaken by the events of September 11 — and to say I was still feeling ready to make a baby would be an understatement. We had a long talk about the kind of world we’d be bringing a new life into: An already over-populated world, groaning under the weight of its inhabitants, suffering from climate change, and apparently teeming with people who wanted to kill us.

On the drive back to Burlington — October 7 — I turned on the radio and heard that we had just bombed Afghanistan. We were at war.  The tears kept coming, life went on, and I was undeterred in my need to start a family. Though it took a few more months, we conceived the person who would become our daughter sometime around my 28th birthday, in January of 2002. I knew it wasn’t a good time in the world to have a child, but I also knew that it never would be. My logic wasn’t logic at all; it was intuition, trust, and all kinds of things that fly in the face of reason.

A year after that night in the kitchen and that horrific nightmare of a September day, I was in my third trimester and “all belly” as my OB-Gyn friend and unofficial doctor affectionately said. The extra 30 pounds showed up on my petite frame in a perfectly spherical shape — a basketball that everyone insisted meant I was carrying a boy. I was lucky in that I’d had a relatively easy and altogether healthy pregnancy, and now that our baby’s October 8 due date was approaching, the realness that a new human would be coming to live in our house was beginning to really sink in.

My nesting impulse was off the hook, manifested in immaculate cupboards, organized bookshelves, and happy houseplants, not to mention the glider I’d received from the grandparents that sat by the front window. I imagined myself spending hours there nursing, and felt my pulse quicken. I couldn’t wait to meet this person I’d sung and written to for nearly nine months. No matter what kind of world we lived in, I believed with all my heart that it would be better with them in it.

Aviva Lou was born on October 10, 2002, just over a year after that terrifying September day. We brought her to rallies and marches against climate change and racial injustice, but she wasn’t much interested in politics or the environment, preferring as she grew and showed us who she was to sing her heart out, read books, and write stories. But something happened while we were busy caring, changing, and witnessing so many more global and national tragedies: It was as if she’d been soaking everything in all that time, and suddenly she began to find her own voice, her own passion, her own devotion to tikkun olam — repairing the world.

Very little is the same as it was 16 years ago. A second child, Pearl, joined us in 2006. My marriage to Bryce ended was I was 36; four years later, I married the woman of my dreams. The world — and our country’s role in its swift deterioration — has continued to stun, anger, and awaken us on a daily basis.

The privilege of just “getting on with life” is no longer an option and really never should’ve been. And these kids — these babies who were then barely here and are now in high school — they’ve inherited an unbearable burden that they must transform into opportunity: To live in a time when remembering days like 9/11 is critical, but no more so than looking at the world each and every day as a place in desperate need of truth, beauty, and justice.