Oct 5 • 10M

The Book of Life and The Book of Death

Amy Writes Words, rebooted

 
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Amy Isikoff Newell
Amy Writes Words, the newsletter, only in podcast form so you can listen to it instead of read it. I have not figured out the footnotes situation yet. https://www.amywriteswords.com
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CW: suicide. The word death is in the title here, folks, what do you expect from me?

Q: You go dark for months and months, Amy and then this is what you come back to us with? MORE DARK?

A: yes, apparently that is correct. I have been super busy and all my newsletter activity has fallen by the wayside but today I had a thing to say and this is a venue in which to say it. You could argue that it’s better placed in my other newsletter, Woe, but it’s not exactly a mental health tip, so it’s here. And probably cross-posted there, because I’m messy like that. Never forget, folks: the perfect is the enemy of basically everything, including the good.

Q: are you going to keep writing these again now?

A: I will try.


Today is Yom Kippur.

For a long time I understood Yom Kippur to be the day on which we all desperately work to be written in the Book of Life for the next year, rather than the Book of Death. Naturally, this led to a lot of inner conflict, because I was never all that interested in being alive. 

Instead of doing what I was supposed to do, I rebelled. I dared the Universe to write me into the Book of Death. It's like a joke I told in a standup set once "Crazy people love cigarettes... because we hate living." But the rest of the time, mostly, I continued to show up. 

I worked. I cared for my children. I made art. I tried to be good. I played the hand I was dealt. I kept a sliver of myself in death’s corner, a slice of self-destruction that I couldn’t quit, like the cigarettes. Yom Kippur would roll around and I’d figure out some way to do exactly the opposite of what I was supposed to do. Work. Eat. Drink. Lie. Cheat. And so on. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Life, what did you ever do for me? Every so often someone would talk about a miracle cure for what ailed me, but I never got a miracle. I tried all the things but they weren’t miracles. Sometimes it felt like the only thing that kept me going was my acute and personal understanding of the wreckage that I’d leave behind if I chose instead to die. 

This year is a hard year for me because today, Yom Kippur, falls the day before the 10 year anniversary of a friend’s suicide. That friend killed himself on a day he was supposed to come to my house for dinner. Instead he stopped answering my texts and he died.

So here I am, finally. Today is the day on which I have always believed I was expected to beg for a life I could sometimes barely tolerate, let alone find the energy to beg for. And then tomorrow, the day on which the person who taught me — precisely, vividly, endlessly — the wreckage that comes in the wake of a suicide — the day on which he chose to die. A one-two punch. Will you beg to live, woman? asks one day, or will you choose to die like he did? asks the day after that. 

Because of the way the Jewish calendar works, this conjunction doesn’t happen every year. Like an eclipse, or like all the planets being in retrograde at once (someone told me that is happening, which I didn’t even think it could, but I don’t claim to understand astrology), it’s a rare convergence.  In the 10 years since he died, this is the first year those two days have bumped up against each other, and they won’t do so again until 2030, when Yom Kippur will begin on the evening of the day he died. 

I’ve struggled extra-hard this year because this isn’t a conjunction that matters much to anyone but me. I have spent the last 10 years of my life reckoning with the pain his death caused me, and the ways it resonated with my own despair, called me to wrestle with my own death wish. And reckoning too with the very real consequences of some of the ways I chose to wrestle with that death wish, the harm I caused: harm to me, harm to people I loved, harm to innocent bystanders. But how could I explain what this meant to the people around me, who didn’t experience that death the way I did and don’t know the details of the ways my own death wish has played out in my life?

In the end though, it turns out to be pretty simple. I open up the computer and I set down the words. Here is a day, and another day, I say, and here is how they relate to one another in my life, and why that is important. It’s not actually that difficult. What was more difficult for me was to see the connection myself, why that death and this holy day are related. 

I understand very well the harm that is caused when someone decides to stop showing up for life. I see also the harm that is caused when someone flails around wielding their death wish like an amulet against responsibility. But it’s also true that even when we show up fully to life, are all in, we will still cause harm. The harm is not optional. Yom Kippur is not so much a day that is about begging to be forgiven for the harm, begging for the right to stay here to do better, this year. It’s not about asking at all. It’s about choosing.

My friend made a choice to stop showing up. For all the years of my life I’ve made the other choice, even the years I was most sunk into one self-destructive urge or another, I still, basically, chose to show up. Sometimes I would sink into a deep depression and see what ways I was not showing up, what harm I was causing, and then I would do something different. I would try to do better. I don’t need an angry God I don’t exactly believe in to sit in judgment over me deciding whether I deserve to live or die. I’m already exceptionally good at judging myself, thank you much. 

No, it’s not about asking to live. It’s about choosing to show up, knowing that if I keep showing up I’ll also keep fucking up, because fucking up is part of what happens when you show up. Sometimes I’ll fuck up because I made bad choices that I can learn from, sometimes I’ll fuck up because I made the best choice I could and even the best choice you can make might still be a pretty terrible choice, might cause harm. Showing up to live isn’t any guarantee that you won’t cause harm along the way, it’s the opposite. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, for sure. 

And yet, I still believe the alternative is worse. 

I have made it a long way in my life showing up to live as best I can, trying to accept responsibility for the harms I’ve caused along the way and make my peace with the psychic pain I cannot cure or flee. 

I have spent the last several days asking everyone who loves me why I can’t let these things go. How could I? Like Hamlet, I stand always at a grave asking a skull whether I should Be. And yet I continue to be. I keep asking that question, every day I ask myself, and every day I answer yes, I will keep showing up. I am in this, not to win it, because what does that even mean, but because I choose to be. 

I don’t have to make that choice. No one has to make that choice, it’s not inevitable. He didn’t. One of the last things he told me, in essence, was that he didn’t owe me — or anyone — his life. And that’s true. 

I don’t owe anyone else my life. For all the pain his death caused me, all that shrapnel, as deeply as I wish he were still here, he didn’t owe me his survival. 

It is true that I always feel the weight of my responsibility to others: to my children, to the folks I work with, to everyone whose lives I touch in any way. But I don’t choose every day to continue to live because of my obligations to others. I don’t even do it because I feel an obligation to myself, or because I feel an obligation to … Something Else. 

On Yom Kippur the question is not “what must I do to survive?” and it is not “why must I choose to survive?” neither of which are very compelling to me. 

It’s this: is my life a gift I am still willing to give to this world? And can I feel it not just as a free-given gift to others, but as a gift to myself? Can I continue this magic trick, bend this darkness so far that it turns into light? Can I make something beautiful, so beautiful even I can enjoy it? Will I try? 

Yes. I write myself into the Book of Life. “yes I said yes I will Yes.”1


Here’s one of many poems I wrote about the dead man, and here’s another of them and another. Here’s a thing where I talk about what it means to play the hand you’re dealt, and here’s another thing I wrote about how you can only save your own life. I don’t know which newsletter this particular thing goes in and I don’t know who wants this particular gift besides me. But here, yes, here I am, showing up the only way I know how, with the only thing I have to give, myself, for another day, another year, another decade, another and another and another.

1

book nerds will recognize this as the last several words of an otherwise impenetrable novel.