Notes on Rejection

One day in nursery school, I was 5 I think, I cried.  My teacher in her floral apron with the gigantic pockets handed me a paper cup.  We called her Morah something.  (Morah is teacher in Hebrew).  Morah Rabbit?  Morah Ralzy?  Morah Rumple?  Something with an R, which made sense because she was the same shape as an uppercase R. She handed me a paper cup, and told me to collect my tears as they spilled from my face and drink them.  “And when you drink your tears,” she said, “think about your ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.”  It must’ve been close to Passover. She didn’t intend to be cruel.  Her face was covered with freckles the same rust color as the flowers on her apron.  The other kids wanted to taste the tears too.  There were enough tears to go around.  Or maybe there weren’t. 

I don’t remember why I was crying, but the other day I started thinking a lot about “rejection” and this memory popped into my head like a burst vessel. 

When a body’s immune system attacks foreign tissue this is called a “rejection.”   

When you are 5 years old and you are crying for a reason and no one asks you what that reason is, but instead you are told you should be grateful you are not a slave building pyramids in Egypt this is a kind of rejection too.

I have been sending out my collection of stories for about a year.   I am told no Big House will ever want it.  I am told, without a commercially viable novel, it’s unsellable.    Your voice, I am told, is not enough to sell a collection.  Maybe if somebody knew who you were it would be enough. But nobody, the 25 year old agent reminds me, knows who you are. My stories have been referred to as puckish.  My voice, omnivorous.  One agent, after rejecting me, referred me to the Poets & Writers database as if I wasn’t drowning in it already.

Sometimes I do screen shots of these rejections and send them as texts to my two closest friends, accompanied by coffin emoticons and broken hearts and snails.      

When I was 14 I fell madly in love with a boy named Steven Michael David.  We met on the bus the first day of sleepaway camp.  He was a counselor and I was a waitress.  He wrote me poems and was 18 and barely taller than me.  He wore Benetton cologne and a Mack Truck baseball cap over his thick curly hair.   He was a Yeshiva boy who took night classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  For the whole entire summer (1989) he was my boyfriend, and then he went to study in Israel, met a girl, and married her.  “You were,” my mother reminds me, “for a whole year inconsolable.  You locked yourself in your room and cried and sulked and cried.  It was unbearable.”  Every single day, for a year, I checked my mailbox for any sign from him.  That whole year he only wrote me a single letter from Israel and addressed it just to “Sabrina.”  No last name.  And I remember wondering if he had forgotten my last name entirely.  Wasn’t he afraid without a last name the letter would never get to me?  But it got to me, and it was distant, and it seemed he was finding god, I guess, and didn’t love me anymore.  He was the first person I ever met who believed in ghosts.  Late at night, I would sneak into his bunk, crawl under his covers and together we’d speak to the dead.

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My husband, who also believes in ghosts and who is much taller than me, will quote from Ecclesiastes when I get really down about all the rejections (agents, publishers, jobs, grants) that have been flooding my inbox.  “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  My husband has a lot of rabbi in him.  And a lot of Buddha too. And when the world says no, he is always beside me saying yes with all his heart.  Sometimes Ecclesiastes comforts me.  Sometimes I ask him to recite it, and then interrupt him before he gets to the “happeneth.”  But the fact remains, when your husband starts speaking to you in Old Testament you know everything’s gotten a bit desperate.     

According to a 2011 study there is a neural overlap between rejection and physical pain.  I recently went to my doctor because I tried to explain “my bones hurt.”  “Where?” she asked.  “My carriage,” I answered sort of pointing around my waist, but then down and then up.  “Is that what you call this?  A carriage?”  She is a very kind doctor, and the corners of her eyes turn downward like mine.  Like she knows the whole world is always a little on the verge of bursting into tears.  As it should be.  After a lot of bloodwork and X-rays we concluded I was sad.  “You’re sad,” she said.  “No,” I said, “I’m a Jew.  This is how we all look.  But also,” I agreed, “I guess I’m also sad.”    

Reasons why I am sad:

1)    Black people getting shot in the back because they are black.

2)    A dear friend's sudden cruelty. 

3)    I have been lucky if I even received a rejection from every single job I’ve applied for since 2011.  Usually it’s just silence.

4)    America.

5)    Early, early one morning my four year old climbs into my bed and tells me he dreamt he was in another dimension where there are no numbers only hand signals.  He shows me one.  It’s an upside down peace signal.  This makes me happy and sad because I understand even though my sons and I live in the same world we also do not live in the same world.  

6)    Yesterday, the 80 year old woman who I mentor used the phrase “not worth a coon’s shit” because her father liked to use that phrase and so she likes to use that phrase too and I said nothing. 

7)    The warming oceans.     

8)    People suffering and dying because they can’t pay for their medicine.

9)    Fires.  Floods.   

10)   Louis CK. 

11)    My 6 year old son’s best friend has cancer.

12)   I am worried all the time that everyone I love will die.  Everyone I love will one day die.

13)   Trump.

14)   Sometimes I’m a really lousy mother.

15)   Nazis. 

To reject something is to refuse to accept, submit, believe, or use something.  I flip to the acknowledgment page of the book I am currently reading.  “Thank you,” writes the author, “to my agent ____________ who believed in the book from the start and worked tirelessly to find it a perfect home.”  I look over at my manuscript.  Something or someone coughs.  “I’m sorry,” I whisper.

2017 has been a really shitty year.  On the playground, my sons’ principal asks me, “Now that this country has taken a turn for the unbelievable, how will this affect your surrealism?”  I had recently finished a story where a President named Huh (who arrives at The White House with only a collection of dustpans) has forgotten the name of his country.  I tell him this.  “Sounds about right,” he says.

My collection is filled with punctured fairytales, with characters who are balanced right at the seam of the real and the unreal.  There are, for example, a lot of characters on the telephone. Things happen in bars or hospitals or playgrounds.  There are daycare centers and taxmen. There is a White House, and a diner, and a public swimming pool.  But these real spaces don't keep a cloud from bursting open and spilling out children. Or jokes from turning into men. Or a woman from getting pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can. Or a father from owing the IRS his heart.  Or a king size bed from turning into a twin.  Or a teacher from snowing.  Which is to say, the collection experiments with characters living in the present, while still maintaining what was at the center of my first two collections (of poetry): the absolute certainty of the unknowable.  

I keep this painting over my desk.  If each story in the collection had a single face this is the face I imagine each story to have.

 Portrait of Lily Jane Fools by  Li Shan Chong

Portrait of Lily Jane Fools by Li Shan Chong

Recently, I read about a two million year old pebble discovered in 1925.  The pebble is described as “water worn” with “staring eyes.”  It was found near but outside the vicinity of extinict hominins, implying that the pebble was possibly carried a good distance, as one might carry a story or poem, because in the pebble the human recognized something and so kept it and carried it.  More than ever I want my stories and poems to be like this pebble, water worn with staring eyes. 

Like my five year old eyes.  Like your five year old eyes. 

My sons bring rocks and twigs and acorns and dead bugs home.  In their pockets and lunchbags and sometimes even in their socks.  They are the opposite of all my rejecters.  They are the poets, the collectors, and the healers.  Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble.  And he will swallow this pebble.  And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly.  And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly.  That would make me happy.  Even if I never know.