Three Dresses (and a fourth)

1.) The first one I pulled out of the closet was the color of seafoam. It fit close to my body when I got it, like it was tailored for me. Tiered, tight ribbons of fabric wrapped around me, like silk mummy bandages. Thin straps because I didn’t have enough on top to hold it up. It felt structural, like it would hold me up instead. I wore that gown to the American Ballet Theater’s Spring Gala in 2008. I remember feeling like I could float over the red carpets at the Metropolitan Opera House. All those steps in my strappy silver shoes. Nothing to the dancers, I remember thinking. Their feet hurt worse than I do, and for something they love more. I remember the dances, from Romeo and Juliet, from Othello. I went with my then-boyfriend and his family. Both sons brought their girlfriends, oblivious to each other. I remember the meal afterwards, in that big tent beside the opera house. His father put a hand over the top of my erstwhile instrument of self-harm’s wineglass after the second bottle disappeared. A third was snuck away. I remember staring up at the paper lanterns instead of at the endless glasses and wild centerpieces. I wanted to float up to be with all those lights. I felt it was a distinct possibility. When I walked into the warm spring night, across the Lincoln Center plaza, and the rush of the fountain sounded like the dress as I ran my hands down my hips, lost (always lost, then) in my  thoughts.

2.) The second one was dark teal. Strapless, satin, it shimmered. A gown for a nightclub singer, gathered in along the drop-waist bodice, a slight train designed to purr along the floor while I crooned. I wore it to some kind of winter social for a very great friend’s teaching program at NYU in the fall of 2006. The social was at Tavern on the Green, right before it closed for the umpteenth time. By unspoken agreement, we were vintage. We were anachronisms. I don’t know if he cared, but I was delighted. I remember realizing that this was just who we were, a little bit out of step, a little bit more glamorous when we had the mettle for it. I loved that feeling. I got ready at a friend’s dorm room at NYU, I wore pretty underwear. My black and rhinestone heels were four inches high. We took a cab. The hallways were lined with mirrors and we pointed out the big windows, wishing for Rick Moranis to come stumbling out of the night. We danced. Him, me, his suit and my dress. My shoes were abandoned at the edge of the floor. The ceiling was carved wood, the chandeliers brass and intricate. I imagined all the fin de siecle crooked mayors of New York and their shrewd, brilliant lady friends drinking and laughing and eating oysters. Creating my city, long before it was mine.

3.) The last dress, that’s when I started to cry. In 2003 I wore it to my grandmother’s wedding in St. John the Divine, the cathedral on the Upper West Side in New York City. I felt like a princess in that dress the second I put it on in the dressing room. It swished over the uneven stones leading from the priest’s office, where my grandmother, mom, aunt, and I got ready. I walked to the altar first. As if I had a map, somehow. As if I was qualified to lead the way. My shoes hurt. I was so happy. Just one small human, a teenage girl with minimal makeup in a dress the color of baby pink rose petals with iridescent beads all over. I carried flowers, I think. I remember looking up at that cavern of unfinished stone over our heads. The wedding guests seemed far away somehow, but I was in the thick of the action. Stained glass windows, an organ so high and old and large they can’t play it for fear it’ll come crashing down. After the wedding, I sang with a live band as my grandmother and her new husband danced. Perhaps love is like a resting place, shelter from the storm. Then I toed my shoes off and slid around on the slick tiles, going from poised young lady to little girl. Abracadabra.

I’m more of a tea-length gown kind of woman, now. I don’t wish to float away any more, having learned my light is not disposable, and not just there for effect. I wear ballet flats to everything, refusing to let my feet hurt. I love all those girls I was, those girls who did their best and felt like they were playing pretend when they got all dressed up. The best kind of pretend, where everyone believes the same thing at the same time.

So when all those dresses came out of my front closet today during the great stuff purgement of 2016, I knew it was time.It has been eight, ten, and thirteen years since I wore each of them, respectively. I never pretended they were going to fit again. I broke up with that boyfriend in 2008. Tavern on the Green was remodeled in 2014. My grandmother died in 2013. For a long time I thought those dresses contained something important about all those experiences, symbolized something. But you can tell that story any way you want.

I kissed each one, thanked it, and cried as I put them in the bag to be rid of. Room for new things, please. Everything I remember happening? It did. I was there. I don’t need proof.

And I have to tell you, there’s a 50s-style navy blue dress with rhinestone buttons on the three-quarter sleeves hanging in my closet. Tea length, fits like a dream. I wear it with boots and ballet flats, and wearing it never feels like playing pretend. It finally has some room to spread out.

Mabel and Me

Passover, Family, and Time

I don’t make a big deal out of being Jewish. I try to underplay it most of the time. For one thing, I am not observant in any way, so it’s a cultural thing at most. I do not like jokes about Hitler, the Nazis, genocide, or gas chambers, but I like to think I would find them tasteless and disturbing anyway. I like Jewish folk music, and klezmer, and Torah scrolls send a bolt of pure delight into my heart for their artistry and the fact of them, but that’s about the extent of my obvious Jewishness. More deeply, I have a commitment to knowledge and a love of wordplay, and I can’t claim those as strictly Jewish traits, though there is a correlation.

Tonight is the first night of Passover, and for the last few weeks, I haven’t wanted to celebrate it. Part of it might be laziness, and part of it might be discomfort. Our long suffering and non-Jewish correspondent is coming, and I think I might feel a little awkward about showing him what all of this means to me. Because it does mean something to me, as much as I do not like the effects of organized religion, as angry as I am sometimes. It’s part of who I am. It’s tradition. It’s the ritual that reminds me who I am, and where I come from.

At the center of all this, I don’t want to break the chain. I always felt like, if in other places and other times I would have been persecuted for what is, essentially, an accident of genetics and history, I might as well wring as much meaning as possible out of it. I still feel that way. That means that I do consider myself Jewish, as far as it goes. (And with me, it’s not that far.) I do feel a connection to Judaism, even though I don’t believe in gods. Judaism resonates with me because it preferences your actions over your beliefs. You need to do good deeds, be a good person, and what happens in your head is between you and your god, if you have one. And I do not.

But the songs get to me. Some of the observances get to me. A professor in college told us the way one of her very religious friends described belief to her was by saying, “I am not living in the past. I am living in all time.” There is an idea some very religious Jews have that we are always receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. That we are always being led out of Egypt. This resonates with me, even if not in a strictly religious sense.

We are always transitioning from one thing to the next. We are always on a journey, arriving and departing every moment, never stopping for anything. Anything you believe you possess is meaningless. In the story, the Hebrew slaves only had time to take what they could carry, and the same is true for all of us. Our real possessions are our memories, our minds and our hearts, and there is no way to leave those behind.

So we go on the journey, marking it year after year. We tell the story again, and we eat the food again, and I chant the way someone has always chanted, even if it wasn’t me. I hear, echoing down thousands of years, the hopes and the prayers of a community who managed to do what so many others did not. They survived. Through the power of their stories. If anything can resonate with me, it is that.

We can’t stop. But we can make memories to take with us when we inevitably have to move on to the next moment. Tomorrow night, when as much of my family as possible is gathered around the table, I’m going to do just that.