Early Existential Perceptions

May 8, 2009

9 min read


Back on that lonely, star-filled night when I was eight years old, I felt that everything was rotten and nobody cared.

My mother was picking weeds from the rock garden in front of our house. My parents made some unusual landscaping choices for the grounds: There were rock gardens that grew weeds, slate-brick walls that were always falling apart and hardy evergreens that were hardly ever green, and often quite brown.

A big, bright, full moon floated against the clear-blue afternoon sky. I was sitting on our porch intrigued by the way the huge orb seemed to just hang there as if suspended by some invisible string. It occurred to me that no magnificent accident or celestial ink spill could have possibly produced this world around me. A glance down at my own hands caused me to wonder about my own existence, as well.

"Mom, why are we here?" She knew instantly that I wasn't asking about the neighborhood or the afternoon's activities.

"Mom," I said, "why are we here?"

She knew instantly that I wasn't asking about the neighborhood or the afternoon's activities.

I remember the look of surprise in her eyes as she stopped tugging at the weed in her hand and slowly turned towards me. She thought for a second or two and said, "That's a question that has been bothering me lately too. Of course, I'm a little bit older than you." She was about forty. I was eight.

She wrapped her hand around her chin, and, staring at something invisible, said, "I think we're here to learn and to grow, and to be nice to one another".

Sounded like a definition of ‘school' and I was somewhat less than thrilled... Seemed kinda weak, too.

"So why don't we?" I asked.

"Why don't we what?"

"Be nice to one another."

"Well, some people have more to learn than others I guess…"

"I dunno, Mom. What's the point of trying to learn a whole bunch of stuff if by the time you know it all you're either dead or too old to do anything worth knowing about anyway?"

Silence. She was staring back at me though. Not like a deer in the middle of the road, more like a wise owl considering her options. She was probably vacillating between rephrasing her previous response, deciding what to make for dinner or if, in fact, the best thing for my mind would be to put my hands to work pulling weeds.

"Mmmm, well you are a thinker, that's for sure. Perhaps the most important thing is to just be a good person. I guess that's what God really wants us to do," she offered, while attempting to wipe the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. I was staring now. My mother was suddenly wearing a big mud stripe on her forehead and unaware of it, which normally would have had me in a hysterical fit of giggles. Instead I thought about the concept of "be a good person." Conclusion: wide open. Too subjective. Gotta be more to it. '

I guess my mom sensed her response was more like an appetizer than the full course meal I was craving, and so suggested: "Maybe you should talk to the Rabbi at Synagogue?"

Class dismissed. The thought of sitting in Rabbi Barry Edelstein's musty smelling office, staring at him while he practiced his upcoming Sabbath sermon on me flashed before my eyes.

"Uh…well, um…let me think about it. I'm gonna go find Kit-Kat. I haven't seen him all day. You want some water or something?"

I was an artist at changing topics. The trick was to throw out several unrelated subjects at once, kinda like a shot-gun blast, then pick one and run with it.

I thus drifted from the porch to the end of our drive-way and sat down on the curb by the side of the road. Kit Kat, my orange-tan cat from the time I was six, came creeping out of the bushes and sat down at my feet. I petted him and rubbed his neck the way he liked and was rewarded with his euphoric purring.

A couple of older boys from the neighborhood came walking up to me. They were somewhat rough, and fit the category of People I tried to Avoid.

"Is that your cat?" the dumber looking of the two said in a less than friendly tone of voice.

"Yeah, he's a bobcat!" I said, not knowing why and immediately wishing I hadn't. I was prone to spitting out words that were both preposterous and untrue. I figured these creeps would think my ferocious and loyal bobcat would cause them serious bodily harm should they attempt to hurt me.

"That's not a bobcat, pee wee."

Pee wee. Ha, ha.

"Did you get it from the jungle? It looks just like the cat we smashed with a rock, doesn't it Jimmy?"

"Naaa, it looks like the one we drove over. Maybe it survived and still has more lives left. Hey, how else can we kill a cat?"

Kit-Kat bolted as I got up. "Excuse me, I gotta go in," I said. I half-walked, half-ran back towards the house while Tom and Jerry keeled over laughing and shouted something about skinning a bobcat next chance they get.

What a riot. This was not my last encounter with these no-goodniks. Some people have more to learn than others, all right.

Back in the house mom was preparing another unconventional dinner, having switched from pulling weeds to cooking them.

Back in the house mom was preparing another unconventional dinner, having switched from pulling weeds to cooking them. She was actually quite a talented chef, but there are limits to what you can do to with twigs, seaweed and tofu.

I entered the kitchen, probably looking a little pale and frightened.

My mother said, "Sit down and have some Rat-A-Too-Eee, it's very healthy for you."

"I'm not hungry," I shot back, catching a glance of the horrible Polynesian rodent concoction simmering on the stove. I kept on walking, right through the house and out the back door. The sun was slowly sinking into the horizon. I was bored out of my mind. I wandered off the property and into the forest that bordered it.

After a while of snapping branches, skipping stones across patches of swamp-pond, and daydreaming my way to nowhere I ended up back in my driveway. A quick trip inside confirmed that my dad must have come home from work and gone back out for the evening with my mom. The babysitter was talking on our phone, as I knew she would be for hours. I headed out the door once again.

Outside my brother was filling his bicycle tire with air.

" Hey," I said, "where'd Mom and Dad go?"
Big brothers could be so informative.

"What time are they coming back?" I stupidly persisted.

"When they get back, Einstein."

He finished pumping, screwed the cap back on the tire and prepared to ride off.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"None of your business."

"Can I come?"

My brother gazed at me disdainfully, didn't say another word, and rode away.

"Great talking with ya," I muttered to myself.

The sun disappeared and stars filled the sky. Lightning bugs glowed green then faded and an army of crickets raised a ruckus from ten thousand hidden perches. I drifted back in the house and up to my room, opened the window, climbed out on the roof and sat down.

It would be many years later until I found that the hidden answer is often in the backyard of your own heritage.

I looked up again at the huge white sphere glowing like a pockmarked light bulb in the sky. I thought about Tom and Jerry smashing my cat with a rock, or running him over with a car, and that no one would even care. I didn't eat dinner and I wasn't even hungry. Didn't my mom know all this health food junk was driving me crazy? Maybe I should just throw myself against a wall or a tree. Maybe then my dad would spend some time at home. Maybe he would protect me from her weird meals. Why did he have to work so much? I needed him…for all kinds of things. And my brothers couldn't make up their minds whether to ignore me or make me feel like dirt. Everything was terrible, rotten, as rotten as could be. Nobody cared. I'm a ghost, I thought, and felt angry tears welling up in my eyes and a hard little lump lodge in my throat.

If only I could have reached out a hand from the vantage point of several years down the road, placed it on my eight-year-old shoulder and said, "Relax a little, kid. Even if people act mean, or seem not to care, or you feel all alone, you're never really alone, there really is a God in this world, and you're loved more than you can even begin to imagine."

But it would be many years later, after I'd searched for meaning and the answers to some of life's pain and mysteries in far away places and philosophies until I found that the hidden answer is often in the backyard of your own heritage. Or on your own grandfather's book shelf. But back on that lonely, star-filled night, I was still gazing outward, and wondering when my parents would get home.

This article appears in the new anthology "Everyone's Got a Story -- 41 short stories from a new generation of Jewish writers," edited and compiled by Ruchama Feuerman, now available for purchase. The stories are drawn from her students who have taken her workshops over the years. The anthology also includes Mrs. Feuerman's writing essays and creative exercises to unlock the story within everyone. Click here to order.

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