The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Moon Over Egypt

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Growing up, my “I love yous” were like my mother’s “I love yous”: desperate, loud, volatile things. In a family of refugees, love was something which necessarily bound you to one another—there was no choice about it, like there seemed to be in the American books I read and American sitcoms I watched, where lovers and family members might gently chide one another, but there was no overwhelming core of want, of insatiable hunger and insurmountable need. In my house love wasn’t something you could choose to dismiss if you didn’t like it. Love was inextricable, at some level, from the kind of suffering that only comes from tremendous intimacy.

My mother jokes about it now, whenever she watches these telenovelas, the Spanish language soaps where the female characters are constantly crying and wailing, whether desperately in love, or stealing a family fortune or cleaning the kitchen floor. She tells me that the experience of being female in an old-world Latin American home is one of pain.

Growing up I was so immersed in this culture that I actually didn’t understand that there were quieter, more removed ways that one could actually love someone or something. I’d watch people send formal thank you notes to one another with grace and decorum, cards that exhibited only a faint and somewhat removed sense of love and gratitude. When I look at my own emails from my teens and early twenties I’m almost embarrassed by the number of emoticons and exclamation points. I wrote letters that were unabashedly heart on sleeve, so much so that sometimes in revisiting them I’m not really sure what the heck I am talking about.

My mother, of course, remembers things differently. She says I was always a little removed, a touch unfeeling. She tells me the way I used to fight: arms crossed, two little fists, one heart unmoving.

This isn’t the image I have of myself of course. In my dreams, I am my eye teeth. In my heart I can never get enough.

***

Today, I still fear outward displays of emotion, even though as a writer and writing teacher I spend most of my time thinking about how to convey the things I feel with accuracy. The blunt affect, which is wildly popular in many poetry circles, feels like a homey and comfortable way to convey feelings, which I might feel vulnerable to otherwise express.

Friends, family and loved ones have all told me in equal measure that I am hard to read, which always surprises me since for much of my life I have felt as if I come across as an overly emotional person. I feel things strongly, even if I don’t show it. And I’m terrified of showing it. Unmetered emotion strikes me as undisciplined, it makes me feel out of control. I respect emotional precision. In my heart I hate those telenovelas I grew up watching with my mother, where everyone seems stupid and mean and crazy. I prefer those two to three hour Japanese dramas that are a slow burn of emotion, where the characters barely move their faces until finally everything breaks like a single wave slapping against the shore.

***

In America we are explicitly taught that a healthy kind of love is a removed love. We learn implicitly that we shouldn’t be dependent on other people, that we must learn to love ourselves and put ourselves first, above all else. The nuclear family is constructed as a manageable unit of love, where everyone has a distinct role. It’s economical and logical. It is supposed to be safe and contained. In American sitcoms we may depict families as quirky or mean or crazy in some amusing way, but only if everyone smiles and hugs by the end. Love is the area outside of suffering, not within it.

For me the experience of love has always been more primal than this. It isn’t the pageantry of a wedding, or the comfort of a gentle hearth. For me, love is fire. It’s not a sigh; it’s a wail, one part caress and one part claw. Love is that open echo of a desert where you constantly feel the need to shout a name but don’t know for sure that you are going to get anything in return.

***

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at managing my feelings.

In yoga and meditation I learn that surrendering to my feelings and just allowing myself to feel them isn’t such a bad thing. The thought of this at first terrified me because in my mind my feelings are carefully caged tigers already craving to get loose. Learning to isolate and examine my emotions with precision and grace has helped me feel more centered and less out of control. In America, big hand gestures and screaming matches over politics and family drama may be played up for big laughs, as we see with Sophia Vergara on Modern Family (to whom my mother loves comparing herself, partially ironically I think, but also a bit wishfully too), but growing up with these kinds of dramatic displays always embarrassed and overwhelmed me. I spent a lot of my youth hiding from family fights—there were words slung that still sting, and there were words I slung back that I regret not keeping to myself.

At the same I lived in a home where I did enjoy the freedom I was given to express myself passionately. If I didn’t grow up in the home I grew up in, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. I might not be a writer, a lover of literature, a person who carefully pushes boundaries, someone who has an appetite for intensity and for extremes. I love these aspects of myself, even though they sometimes fear them also. Writing, which allows reflection and revision, has become a kind of safe space to express my feelings in a way that the charts you learn in cognitive behavioral therapy never could.

In America we generally view surrendering to emotion to be as bad as surrendering in a war. On American TV nice white people are always less emotional than the crazy ethnic neighbors who make too many hand gestures and talk about things besides the weather. As a young adolescent I was fascinated by TV shows like Seventh Heaven, where everyone was pretty and white and struggling to make thoughtful, metered choices. In WASP America, angst is the realm of youth. White teenagers are allowed to be emo, but the mark of adulthood is being reasonable and not at the beck and call of your own emotional responses to the world. Emotion is tantamount to rebellion. It is just not something you bring into adulthood, unless you are maladjusted or immature. This isn’t so when more “ethnic” families are being depicted on TV—Latinos are presented as sensuous and emotional and blacks as sassy and at ease with bravado. Jews and Italians and Greeks, while nominally white, are still “othered” in Reality TV shows, which play up ethnic stereotypes and fixate on family drama where emotions, rather than logic, reign supreme.

Professionalism is still perceived as something which is WASPy, male and white, so women and minorities who want access to these kinds of avenues are always given the same advice: play down the customs they grew up with. Smile less, don’t betray your emotional response so readily. As a woman who has always been able to “pass” as the “all-American girl” I’ve benefitted from a system that sees quietness as dignity and the ability to maintain emotional neutrality as a sign of reasonableness. These attributes are about class as much as they are about race in America. We claim to love the mavericks and rabble rousers, but for women and minorities the mark of success in America is marked by knowing how to speak the emotional language of business and that means understanding what topics to keep off the table, and knowing how to sit still and shut up.

***

I’m afraid of surrendering to my emotions, but I also know that every truly heartfelt experience I’ve had has ultimately been a surrender. Every sunset a reminder that the universe is unbearably big, that it is constantly moving and going on without me, irrespective of me, and I am just lucky to be a part of it at all. Emotional connectedness is the heart of human experience. We crave connection, both literal, physical touch and heartfelt communication with one another. As a first-generation millennial I am used to the idea that we can love people and things and places that are physically far away. As I write this I am currently at a wedding where I am the Maid of Honor to a close friend, who I met through mutual friends on Myspace. People lament that digital spaces are meaningless and shallow and superficial and fake miss the very real human connections that come of these interactions. In a rapidly moving world, I feel closer to some friends I speak with almost entirely online than I do with some people who I see on an almost daily basis.

And yet there is something about being in the physical center of an emotional moment and diving in completely, no time for logic or metered revision, that is incredibly special.

At twilight in DC the sky is a warm candle glowing overhead and the moon looks like it is in heat. My boyfriend and I are walking at dusk and he shares stories of when he lived in Egypt. He says his experience there was wonderful and amazing and scary and hard, but how often it was just very lonely too. He says he used to look up at the sky and realize that the moon he saw was the same one seen by family and friends back home and explains how this comforted him when he was traveling by himself.

This idea, that the heavens literally connect us, is so incredibly moving to me. Still, the night sky often terrifies me—all that darkness, the stars an array of bulletholes in black. Once, on an island, on a near empty beach, I went swimming in the middle of the night. I was terrified of drowning, but there was nothing more that I wanted to do either. I traced the shore, feeling the water lap at my ankles and eventually I surrendered myself to the moment and dove in.

***

Eventually, at the end of those long, slow moving Japanese dramas, the characters finally give in to the raw power of emotion. These films always feel like a slow seduction to me, teasing the viewer to come a little closer to feeling something strongly. They require a kind of patience that neither loud and brash American cinema nor emotionally heated Spanish language television encourages. My love of Japanese cinema might, in part, be born out of rebelling against my own roots. My Cuban-Jewish home was often overwhelming for my senses, but since moving away from home, I often miss it. I love the fact that I can call my mom on the phone and I will be greeted with an incredibly effusive outpouring of emotion. Once, as a young teenager, my mom took my brother and me to a Mexican restaurant, and we both hid under the table, embarrassed as she began to sing along with the mariachi band that came to play at our table. Years later, I watched my mother and aunt sing songs from Cuba in our kitchen, just moments after fighting loudly about something that they had fought loudly about before, and I regretted not learning the language fully, startled that something that overwhelmingly fierce could also be tender and soft.


Arielle Bernstein's writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and AV Club. She teaches writing at American University and is working on both a novel and memoir. More from this author →