How To Build An Entire World In Negative Space

What are your truths and where do you keep them?

When we bumped into one another recently at the kiddush after shul, I popped a grape into my mouth and washed it down with these questions. I couldn’t help but wonder how you would have answered me if you could, and I also wondered whether you wanted to ask the same of me.

I saw the dark rings under your eyes and I’m pretty sure you spotted mine. Still, we kept it simple. Neutral.

We all have our worries and tsores, both the digestible vanilla kind and the sort that would prevail if we gave it the chance. You and I are both old enough, however, to know the potential damage of an inquiry. Better to leave things well enough alone, not to risk chipping away at the surface.

So when we meet, at a kiddush on Shabbos or a school event or a simcha, we ask only a shallow How are you? The pebble of it leaves behind no more than a tiny ripple in the water.

We shape our answers into something we feel comfortable enough to share. No more than a pareve word or two. Baruch Hashem or Good, thank you or Busy. You know – work, the kids.  

Of course, there’s more to say. There always is. But do you really want to know? Do I really want to tell you?

We bite down on the tips of our tongues lest we reveal too much and shatter the fragile social wall between us. We pack our secrets close to our chests. Tall fences make good neighbors.

It is a kindness we extend to one another – we, not quite friends, though not strangers either – that we do not push for more. We honor the social contract to keep within our dalet amos. We turn to our families and close friends for support and we fake it till we make it in public with everyone else.

Should the conversation slide towards dangerous territory, one of us will change the subject back to the buffet we are standing in front of or whatever women’s event is coming up or the impact of the tax bill. We’ll corral our truths into a place where we have control over what’s on public view and then we’ll head over to get another cup of seltzer.

What would we say to one another anyway?

No good can come from kvetching about our aches and longings. Sharing will not feed our hunger, nor will it assuage what plagues our sleep at night. It will not undo our disappointments or make our problems go away either. We will still worry about the things we worry about. The same prayers will remain on our lips.

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I know this: there’s no such thing as a full story. I add and subtract details for my own comfort and for yours, too. You do the same. We offer a brief plot summary, maybe some character description, but never a complete script. On the other hand, it is possible that we ourselves cannot see the whole picture from where we are standing, the view blurred by our closeness to it.

And so we leave our truths in the negative space and return to the image we show the world.

Someone asked me recently if I’ve always been a writer, if I kept a diary as a child or daydreamed tales into a journal on a lazy summer day. The answer is both yes and no because for decades I did not write my stories down on the page.

They were never meant to be fiction. They were more unpublished autobiographical fantasy than anything else. As a little girl, I would tell them over and over in my head as I rode my bicycle along a path not far from our house. I liked to stop where it hugged the river, where I could bend down and peer through the dry grasses that shot up along the banks. I hoped to find a taller, thinner, prettier version of myself reflected in the water, someone more likely to be cast in the adventure saga I was making up as I went along.

Later, after I’d grown up and moved far from that bicycle path, I continued to spin stories in my head. These did not veer from candor. They simply gave it some padding to make it easier to swallow the bumps and bruises of everyday life. Besides, I kept them to myself. No one else needed to know.

In this way, I would aver we are all writers, scripting what we let others see.

Yet some of our truths are too painful to vocalize, causing us to temper the words we share even with our closest friends and family over coffee and during calls that run late into the night. We dim the lights and unburden ourselves in the arms of our spouses or lovers, though that doesn’t mean we’ll reveal everything. And what are we to do with whatever is left? We can schlepp it around until we stumble beneath the weight of it, or if we choose, we can bare what remains before G-d. He for sure knows the total emes already, even when we try to hide it from ourselves.

These are the multiple sides of my story, all of them true –

There is the one I keep close to my chest, in the vault to which my heart holds the key.

There is the version with curated omissions, the one I share when you and I meet.

But it is the one that lies in the negative space between the first two that is the rawest, the one that hews closest to the bone.

And that’s the one you’ll read on the page. That’s the place you’ll find the truest version of me.