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Under the Eye of the Name: On Writing and Insomnia

The musical notation of a fermata


I’ve had chronic insomnia all my life— I’m going through a bout of it as I write this. When the sleepless nights start to add up, a phantasm filters over my vision. Dreams I have not dreamt hold over, into the day, as if under a fermata, that particular holding of a musical note or rest for an unfixed length of time. Insomnia makes me more aware, as I have to take extra care crossing streets and writing (such as this essay), but I am also less present. I am here but I am elsewhere—not lost in memory, but simply, elsewhere.

When I was a child, I remember hearing two different recordings of a Rachmaninoff piece that my father loved, and the endings weren’t the same: one was shorter than the other. He explained the conductor interpreted the fermatas at the end differently. When I asked him what a fermata looked like, he drew one for me: a half circle over a dot.

The marking was celestial. I studied it as closely as I did the prayers in my childhood sidor. Having just learned that Hebrew letters are also numbers, I asked my father if the fermata had any such numerical value.

He thought about my question and then answered: It is as much as someone wants.

* * *

Abbreviating the name of God with the Double Yod
Abbreviating the name of God with Yod-Yod

Shortly after this conversation, I experienced the first string of sleepless nights— that is to say, I slept but in snatches, and always waking before or just right when I’d begun to dream. Instead of nodding off in class or at meals, I experienced life through those first phantasmal filters. Noises from my surroundings were muddled and amplified. Colors had sound, and sounds had visible arms and legs reaching like sudden flashes of lightening. Time sped up and then slowed down; it had temperatures and temperaments. My own movements mellowed like igneous rock. I absorbed some information very quickly, while some sentences I had to read over and over until they became prayers I’d memorized from some long ago, arising from that elsewhere. I’d done all of this before, I realized, though I couldn’t say how or where. There was so much music and misunderstanding strewn on the lawn of that day, all the leaves I’d gathered and those that kept falling from trees in the sky, and I was under and outside of it, drinking from its shallow wells, bathing in its lazy, neon rain. I felt in control in a way I’d never felt before: I was holding time, color, space, sound, all of the swirling viscera and breaking of bones in the world, to my liking. I would shut my eyes and rock with it, before something within me murmured ENOUghenOUgh, cutting the visions short, and forcing me to focus with only a transparent lens, bringing me back to the old way, and after a few days of this, I finally collapsed, falling asleep at 6 PM and not waking again before I had school.

Then everything went back to normal. I tramped through the three-dimensional present, feeling ordinary, heavy-hearted and cheated, wondering if I’d get my other world back. Youth is often impatient, and I was no exception. After few weeks, I was just about to give up when it started up again– an entire night of tossing and turning in bed, my body too crooked to rest, the too-flat pillow and the broken springs in the mattress stabbing me in the legs. I’d awaken, feeling drunk if I’d known then as a child what drunk was. That morning I arose feeling terrible in a wonderful way. It last a few days too. Soon I would go through cycles of this– sleeping and then living the reveries I couldn’t have while merely sleeping. I did not call it insomnia. I didn’t know what it was. My mother was the one who gave it that name. And after six months of it she wanted to take me to a doctor. I didn’t want to go. When the sleeplessness started up again, I promised her I’d try to sleep through the next night. I tried. I didn’t.

That day at school, having gone through two nights on very little sleep, I began to reconsider the words, the shapes of the words, in my Hebrew primer. I wanted to heighten the words, to give them grace, anoint the shaky block script of my young handwriting with a star and half moon of ink. The desire changed the way I wrote my sentence, as the last word had to be special. Since I was answering a question about our home life, I made sure to answer that although my two Mexican cousins who lived with us that year were Catholic, they also kept kosher because we believed in the same God. While it made for some clunky grammar in Modern Hebrew, I felt that by placing two fermatas over the double yods, which is a way to shorten the sacred name of God, I had turned a simple homework exercise into something more profound.

But when my teacher returned our papers at the end of class and sent everyone else home, she asked to see me at her desk. She shook her head at me before she even spoke. Then she asked me if I was in my right mind when I had written the name of God so casually, so carelessly; she reminded me never, ever to write it unless it was absolutely necessary.

I protested: But the question asked to describe our home life—

She cut me off: Now that you’ve written His name, you know you can never throw this piece of paper away. You do know that, right?

She then pointed to the dual fermatas above the double yods.

And what this? Are you graffitiing here? She asked.

It’s called tagging, I said, and no, I did not.

So you took it upon yourself to invent vowels that do no exist?

(I wondered if it was redundant to say one invented something that does not exist, but kept it to myself.)

They’re not vowels, I tried to explain. They’re fermatas.

They’re what? She wrinkled her noise.

When I explained what I’d attempted, she gave me a funny look.

This was supposed to be such a simple assignment, she said, adding: Language is not music.

It’s not? I asked.

No, she said. Never.

Oh, I said.

And if you were going to do it, she said, why couldn’t you deface this?

I saw she was pointing at my own name.

My name doesn’t matter? I asked.

Her eyes widened and then she smiled.

I’d take off points for grammar, she said, but it wouldn’t really matter because you always write the letters for Rosebud. You should be using Rahel, your Hebrew name. This Rosebud business– that’s not even a real name.

Why? I asked.

It’s not a Jewish name, she said.

But my mother doesn’t go by hers, I said.

Your mother’s a different story, she said. She’s a convert.

So she can go by Esperanza and not Esther, and it’s fine?

Your mother is not my student, my teacher said. Your Hebrew name is all that matters. The name Rahel is not your name alone. It belongs to many young Jews, and by being ashamed of it, you’re shaming them. You’re shaming one of the greatest Jewish matriarchs in our history.

I’m not ashamed of it, I said, it’s just no one at home calls me that.

Then your home is not a real Jewish home.

I was stunned by that, when she added: Rahel is the name in which you would be called to the Torah– though I’m not sure that will ever happen for you, to be honest. Not where you’re headed.

Oh no, I said, on the verge of tears.

My teacher reached for a pencil, handing it to me eraser first.

Get rid of them, she said.

Get rid of what?

Erase those marks, she said, but careful not to erase His name.

Can you help me? I asked meekly.

Oh no, she said, this is on you. This is your doing. We need to see the rabbi about this. You’ve defaced something holy, and you don’t even know what you’ve done.

I felt my eyes well up.

Don’t you dare, she hissed. Don’t get it wet. Then you’ll ruin it altogether.

I took the pencil from her, and very carefully began to erase the first fermata. It came off easier than I thought. I rubbed and rubbed until very thin, short threads of debris formed. I wiped them away; left behind was a nearly clean, though thinner, white cloud, whiter against the original sheet of paper. The second fermata was not as easy. I was just as careful, but it left a faint grey cloud above the second yod.

My teacher picked up the paper and raised it to the light..

This will have to do, she said, or you might tear it. Tear the name of God.

She shook her quickly, chasing away the thought.

So remember, she went on, you can’t ever throw this paper away.

She stood up and motioned me to follow her. We were going to see the rabbi. She sighed yet again, and repeated her words from earlier: language is not music.

* * *

I expected my father to be angry when he was told what I did, but he wasn’t. He began to tell me how the language of Hebrew is fixed like the laws of the universe and well beyond our understanding. Even if it’s all chaos, he said, it’s not what we think chaos is.

At this point, I was swaying on my feet, and my father knew I was on the verge of collapse, that is to say, the sweetest of that long, long deep sleep from which nothing can awake me. My parents tucked me into bed, my father saying that I wasn’t in trouble, that I could eat dinner later if I got up, that I needed to rest now, my mother asking the room, the silence, when this would stop and her daughter would finally get well. My father comforting her as he always did.

The room was heavy and humming and vibrating with their closeness, with their confusion and fear and unknowingness. I heard the shapes of their relief and their wondering how long would this continue. I heard myself speaking, as if I’d been speaking for a while, not knowing how long I’d been speaking when the voice, my voice elsewhere, rang through the darkness: Can you hear them in people’s voices?

Hear what? My father asked.

I think I began to listen for them in people’s voices, I said.

You need to sleep, my mother said, you can’t stay like this forever.

The fermatas, I went on, I want to hear them in people’s voices.

When I heard myself say this, my father’s short laugh pealed, bouncing off the slanting walls, zigzagging around us. He spoke softly and slowly that what I was actually listening for a caesura, not a fermata, but we could discuss it tomorrow.

But tomorrow, I said. Tomorrow it will all be gone.

What’s gone? My mother asked.

I’ll be awake then, I said, fighting off the heaviness in my head. Tell me now.

My parents had already begun to leave the room, but my father was also still by side as he told me a caesura was a pause, and sometime people do speak in metrical feet, and then he explained what metrical feet were, and though he and his words and my mother’s hands on her hips were all fading away, I saw large, unattached feet rolling out of someone’s mouth, my mouth, the foot of one of our parrots in her beak as she trimmed her nails carefully, all our parrots fussing around on their t-stands, all rescue birds and taken in by my parents whom could never say no, because it was always very cold and quiet in those homes that gave them up where someone has always left the television on without sound and for some reason, I refuse to look at it, to see what was on, what appeared in the grey static because there’s no more channels and I feel the indents and lines that ran along my abdomen and hips and when I put my hand there, the skin was cold and my hands colder and my legs so thin that with my arms outstretched, I looked like a t-stand.

She’s asleep, I hear my mother say over a wave of sand falling into my mouth, filling my limbs.

But I’m holding still, just beneath the halo of waking. I am trying to awaken still; I am fighting my body, the air, time. I am trying to answer my mother though she did not ask anything. Where are you going? Will I forget how to wake up? Will they have to use me as a t-stand for the parrots, put me to use? I am crying softly in bed and I am riotous at the table with my cousins, my mother’s nephews who can never help me with my Hebrew homework, who think the letters and their sounds strange and otherworldly, their voices now holding over the sentence in which I did not mean to desecrate, in which I meant to hold this house under the eye of the name of us, our ways, our family, our togetherness, the simple gesture of my cousins forgoing cheese on their hard-shell beef tacos, so as to not mix milk with meat, the crunch of the shell deafening, the filling of plastic tumblers of juice and soda, my cousins who made dinner so that my parents could rest after a long day of work and in the clamor there, though quietly, we speak to each other, through my not-Jewish name, the name that was always there, I am saying in bed, in the background, my unmoving lips tuned to a bass murmuring low, the shrinking images of us flaring quickly like sixlets on a tom-tom, and all I can hear now is blocked noise humming, like I’m underwater and my breathing is amplified and still I’m holding, I fear this moment, I am in awe of the moment in which all falls into a complete stupor, into a buzzing-edged silence that lulls with its name without making a sound, overtaking and holding down like a fermata, without anyone having a say, without choice, simply without, without.