#OTDAnthems: Counting Stars

TW: self-harm (lite)

OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” got me through a really difficult weekend in the first month after I left home and religion. I only watched the accompanying music video recently and discovered that it is, ironically, about a kind of religious / spiritual awakening in the face of debilitating capitalism and consumerism. Still, the meaning I attached to the words when I was helpless and reaching out for a lifeline remains.

The lines I most connected to:
“I feel something so right doing the wrong thing / I feel something so wrong doing the right thing.”
“Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.”
“I don’t think the world is sold / On just doing what we’re told.” (These are misheard lyrics, according to the video above, but I stand by this lyric.)
“Everything that drowns me makes me want to fly.”

The story:
There was a family simcha (the first of many I would have to grapple with attending as a  no-longer-frum daughter and sister) two weeks after I moved out of my parents’ home. So for the third weekend of living on my own, I put on a long black skirt and a shell under my sweater, and I went to Lakewood to be with my family for shabbos.

Only one of my siblings knew I was not frum at that point. Later, much later, I found out that a few more of my siblings had guessed that the reason I moved out was to drop religion. But they said nothing at the time.

I made it through the Friday afternoon chaotic rush for licht-bentching, I made it through the Friday evening sister-singing, I made it through the Friday night kiddush and seudah. I made it through the night in a neighbor’s home.

In shul on shabbos morning, the first cracks broke through my determined facade. By the time the whole family – all 14 of us adults and one child – crowded around my sister’s dining room table for the seudah, I was holding back a scream.

As was expected of me, I helped plate and serve each course. I was dressed in my shul clothes still, a straight slate-grey skirt and a pretty, frilly sweater. As I served my father the salad course at his seat at the head of the table, I had to squeeze past the narrow space where my brother-in-law sat to his right. My brother-in-law moved his chair backwards instead of scooting closer to the table, and I moved in front of him to set my father’s plate on the table.

I leaned over and became uncomfortably aware that my ass was in front of my brother-in-law’s face.

Quickly, I left the plate haphazardly on the table and escaped to the kitchen. I stole a glance back at my brother-in-law, and could read nothing on his face.

The scream that had been building inside me was ready to burst. I muttered to my sister that I needed to sit in quiet for a minute. She looked at me sympathetically and told me I could use the extra bedroom and lock the door if I needed to.

I went in and locked the door. I thought about turning on the light – who would know, here in this locked room? – but I didn’t. I sank onto the floor in the dark with only a pale sunlight filtering in through the window.

I pushed the sleeves of my shell up so my elbows were exposed. Then I pushed them up further so I could cross my arms over my chest and grip my upper arms, fingers digging into flesh. I curled my head over to my knees and in that position, rocked back and forth. “This is not me,” I muttered as I rocked, “This is not me,” as my nails caused my skin to shriek in pain, “This is not me.”

I changed after a while and chanted “This doesn’t have to be me,” because I realized a part of me was and would always be – this. This, enjoying a lively shabbos meal with my family. This, escaping to a room for some quiet. This, reassuring myself that no one can force me to be what I don’t want to be. This, not really believing my own reassurances.

On the ride back to Brooklyn on motza’ei shabbos, I plugged my headphones in and turned on “Counting Stars” at full volume. The one sibling who knew about my agony sat next to me and headed people off anytime someone tried to talk to me. I leaned my head on the window, the music blasting my eardums and pushing out any thought, tears slowly trickling down my face, watching the scenery flash by.

“I feel something so wrong doing the right thing / I feel something so right doing the wrong thing.”

Indiana Jones at Sinai

Three years ago, I was an OTD newbie. Every single holiday was a struggle for me and for my parents, as they refused to accept that I no longer want to celebrate them and I grappled with what I actually felt about any of it.

On my first Shavuos “out,” a theater was showing the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost ArkI went with a friend from school, and as we sat in that dark theater, I felt my insides being ripped apart. The friend I was with wasn’t a close enough friend for me to confide in her, so I just sat staring straight ahead as tears rolled down my face, and afterward only told her that it really is an awesome movie (it really is).

Afterwards, I sat outside on a bench, tears continuing to blur my vision as I wrote this poem. It’s a pretty terrible poem because I wrote it while still in the first throes of all the emotions I felt.

This year, my feelings toward the yom tov are entirely different. It’s not a struggle to decide not to go home for shavuos, and I don’t feel the abject horror at the idea of people actually believing, and yet still smiling, that god hung Sinai over the heads of the Jews and threatened to bury them if they don’t accept the Torah.

Maybe I’ll edit the poem someday, once I’ve had more time to reflect on what I felt then. For now, here it is, unchanged from how I wrote it three years ago:

Indiana Jones at Sinai

Every Shabbos
I wake up
thinking about how you
all are in that mode

how I
will be packing up my books
heading to school
the library
the park
to work
to write
forbidden activity
forbidden thoughts.

I got used to that.

Strange detachment
images at the back
of my mind

I got used to that.

And then.
You plead with me
that overused argument
I was there
at Sinai
I said I accept
I can’t deny it
because five million witnesses
three and a half thousand years
no one says
“my father didn’t tell me that”

I cry.
I argue.
I rail.
It’s not enough
for me.

Fate’s a bitch
Shavuos only days later
I wake up
thinking about how you
all are in that mode
add a dash of accepting
Torah and God
with a pinch of
crying because
I’m not there.

The used-to-it-ness
goes away.

Fate’s a real bitch.

I’ve been waiting
for this
for so long
breath stolen
the golden glowing ark
as Indiana
the badim
vestiges of awe
as the line of men
with the blue velvet cloth covering it
I’m back
in seventh grade
learning about
the joy of
the aron with the luchos
bringing it to Shiloh
the dancing
the celebration
the dead
who dared
to touch
the holiness

villains delighting
in opening the
look in wonder
crazed joy
the gold spirit emerging
swirling throughout
Indiana knows –
don’t look Marion

and then the spirit inside
amid screams
and terror
and holiness

and the gold spirit
in a tornado of
light and fury
the chest is rising
the aron
ark of the covenant
is rising
returning to god
just like he said
I feel

it’s only the cover
it crashes back down
along with my insides
covers the ark

Indiana and Marion
because they didn’t look

and I think I’ll never get used to it.