"Everything for Brod"
- Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
* * *
My life is illuminated by two great tracts, two great threads that I trace down, trace through the smallest gestures, the grandest pronouncements of my life: the quiet embarrassment of now finding I prefer sleeping on couches, the steady rigor of how I always put the peanut butter on the left and the jelly on the right, the soundless prayers I utter when I pass certain landmarks, the irresistible fears that wake me at 3 in the morning, the desire when I wake to find out if I have something to leave here. My life is illuminated by these two great tracts and there is no part of me, no part of my past or present that is not lit up by them and so, too, my future is also bathed in the light from these two great arcs across my days.
I never wanted the one, never expected the other, and yet there is no "me" without them. How did this come to pass? How did I live before the arrival of these two? I was happy, but, perhaps, not complete, not fully my name. And now? Can I say that I am now? No, I can't, but I now have a reason to live, to find out just what I am capable of doing in the time that I have left.
Love will do that for you.
* * *
In his maddening and beautiful book, Everything Is Illuminated, Foer imagines a magical-realist history of his family, of his great, great, great, great, great grandmother Brod. She is born in a river (her name means "river"), the only survivor of an accident that killed her mother and father. The shtetl near the river takes her in and holds a lottery to see who will raise the child, and a disgraced usurer, Yankel, becomes her father.
Yankel, whose wife ran off, is already aged when Brod comes to him. As she grows he creates an entire life in story to ground his daughter, a life that never happened: how he met her mother, how they fell in love, his sadness when she died giving birth to Brod, the imagined dead woman's favorite things, her way of speaking, until at last, Yankel believed the stories himself. He wrote long letters to himself as if they were from his imagined beloved so he could show Brod how he and her mother were the great love of each other's lives.
He indulges Brod's out-sized intellect. He showers her in books he cannot afford, and quietly, so as not to hurt his feelings, she returns them in a week or so and keeps the family floating on the round of money used to buy and return books.
As Yankel teeters toward his death he begins forgetting the stories, forgetting his own name, forgetting why there are so many books in his house. In his room, before he goes to sleep he writes messages to himself on the ceiling over his bed so when he wakes he can remember: "You are Yankel...You love Brod...You are a Sloucher...You were once married, but she left you...You don't believe in an afterlife..."
The night Yankel dies is the first time Brod ever enters his room. She finds him on the floor, a note in his hand it reads: Everything for Brod.
* * *
You are fucked when you have no one, or nothing to live for. The fucked life is always one that is pinched, circumscribed, angry at its presumed limitations; it is a life that extends only so far as its misery. Can you say, "Everything for Brod?" What is it in your life, what cause, what love is there that you can give your life to? Without this you are fucked.
I never wanted children, never wanted to be a father, and yet I am the father of four, my youngest similar to Brod, an orphan washed up by stronger currents, and while I never failed them it is only in the past few years that I understood that I never succeed for them either. To my bones they are one of the two arcs that inform my days and keep me on my path. The other... I cannot write of her, but she, too, is an arc, a thread, a tract across my days that illuminates my time, makes me glad to have lived long enough to know this is what life is for: to live for something other than your puniness; to live by the light that is available to you, and when there is none, to light it yourself.
Do not trust your darkness. Unfuck yourself by loving someone other than yourself.
* * *
"You light me up."