My name is Anna Darvin Hirsch. I’m 38. I was born in North Carolina. I’m white. I’m a woman. I use she and they pronouns. I’m polyamorous. I have three partners, two men and a woman. I’m queer. I have herpes and a thyroid imbalance. I’m nondisabled. I have a lot of debt. I don’t have children. I’m a psychotherapist. I’m a writer and an artist. I hate plastic. And I love carbonated water. All of these parts of me have beginnings that lead to longer stories. And all of these stories together are how I am me.
When I was a baby I was baptized. Some time before I turned double digits I had a mikveh and was converted to Judaism and then had a bat mitzvah on the late side around the age of 14. As I remember it there were endless painful sessions with a teacher trying to teach me to sing my haftorah in Hebrew for the occasion.
I am a bad singer. We can start there. Really. It’s objectively true. Like, really bad.
It's ok. I knew I was a bad singer when I was 14. For one thing, I knew that I couldn’t for the life of me reproduce the notes that the teacher my parents had hired was committed to making me hear and learn. It literally made no sense to me. I think I went home crying after one of those lessons. Finally, I was transferred to work directly with the Rabbi. To my surprise, he didn’t seem to care at all how off my tone was. He just wanted me to memorize the words. He gave me cassette tapes of the reading sung in Hebrew by other Rabbis to take home and practice at home. I listened over and over to those cassette tapes trying desperately to memorize a language that I didn’t speak. And when the big day came and I still only had half of my haftorah reading memorized, our Rabbi sang the second half for me, reassuring me that it was a rather long portion compared to most.
I’m 38. It took me 24 years, nearly a quarter of a century, to understand that “Anna the bad singer with a bad memory” is probably not the whole story here. But I think I finally did figure that out. When I look back now I can see more of what was going on. I was growing up Jewish in the 90s in rural Missouri and the closest synagogue to our home was almost two hours away. My earlier and brief Hebrew studies had mostly ended at age 9 when we moved to Missouri and weekday after school Hebrew classes were not possible. At the same time, there were no other kids around in this new life in Missouri, except for my sister, which came with its own challenges, who I could easily and regularly talk to about being Jewish or about trying to learn Hebrew. In choir class at our rural public school we spent most of the fall singing Christmas songs. And while at the time I just thought I was bad at singing when I got the feeling that my choir teacher was glad that I didn’t know the words by heart and sometimes just mouthed along without making sounds, I can see now that feeling might also have had something to do with shame for not being part of the right cultural background to fit in. Yes, I was also a bad singer even in elementary school and I probably felt some shame about that too. It’s just all true. And had I lived somewhere else with more Jews, some version of this would have still happened to me. In fact, many years later it did. On meeting an orthodox Jew in graduate school in Louisiana and coming to her house for seder one Friday evening, mid-conversation about Judaism she blurted, “Oh, so you’re Jewish in the wrong way!” You see I learned how to see all of this, to include all of my story, from my mother — a woman who was raised Lutheran. And where does Judaism come from? Your mom. But that is exactly where it came from for me, too, had I been able then to respond in any other way than laugh nervously.
My mother’s names have been Karen Magnhild Nygaard, Karen Nygaard Hirsch, and Karen Hagrup. She is 76. She was born in Norway. She’s white. She’s a woman and uses she pronouns. She is partnered to a woman, after a long marriage with a man. She says now that she must be bisexual. She got polio when she was 3, has now grappled with years of post polio syndrome, and now she is navigating wet macular degeneration in both of her eyes. She has herpes and a thyroid imbalance. She is retired and lives frugally on what she has. She has been a teacher, a professor, an executive director, and a founder. She is a writer and an artist. She hates violence in movies. And she loves color and lights. (Karen: And, yes, carbonated water.) All of these parts of her have beginnings that lead to longer stories.
And all of these parts of her have been the perfect mishmash all together to feel like she has not just been marginal to society, but that she comes from somewhere beyond the margin — somewhere completely other. My mother crossed an ocean, got married, and raised two children after many years of being told that her life belonged to her parents and to god. My mother has a doctorate, and often feels unaccomplished. In the 80s and 90s, my mother was one of the first people to tell the world that disability is a cultural experience, not just a medical one, and today she often feels that her voice has already been forgotten. My mother is a female disabled immigrant whose writing hasn’t been published nearly enough, or nearly as often as my father’s.
My mother speaks two languages fluently, and sometimes when she opens her mouth she feels like she can’t say anything anyone will understand. My mother is really good at laughing at herself at times like these, and in these moments, this nervous laughter teetering between despair and joy has certainly saved her and her nervous system for decades.
My mother knows things about being outside the in crowd. She knows that it’s incredibly hard to get people to pay attention to you without the attention turning into pity or scorn or revulsion. She knows how incredibly challenging it is just to make it into the margins of society. She knows that it’s actually impossible despite all the talk of centering her experience for her to get to the center. The center was not built for her. Frankly, it’s not where she wants to be anyway.
My mother has lived and lives in the margins. And while she has fantasized that the magic must be happening in the center, my mother’s own vitality is scribbled all over the margins, arguing with the center, alive with the margin’s own dialect, sensibility, and magic. And my mother, after all of these years, is still open to inviting people in here to meet her.
In 2005 my mother was asked to submit an essay proposal about her life experiences with disability to possibly be included in an anthology on disability experiences. She wrote me that year and asked me to help her with the writing. I look back on the edits I gave her while I was in graduate school for a creative writing degree and today multiple thoughts race through my head: Why was I being sort of mean? Why was I picking on individual words? Why didn’t I know how to say more about the flow and overall mood and joy of what she was working on? I understand now, that I was still integrating the lessons she had gifted me by raising me and by raising me as a Jew. I was still healing my own wounds in my own marginalized places, and one way that came out was in needing to sound important, to sound like an authority. Her essay was not accepted to that anthology and was never published, and more than a decade later when she reminded me of this, I had no memory of it. She told me then that she felt the writing was not good enough. I can feel myself racing to mount her defense inside my own thoughts. I cannot stand this doubt any longer, for either of us. We are out of time. It’s bullshit. She is a great writer, and so am I, and no internal or external authority can dictate that any longer. I’m putting my foot down. And I’m opening the page. You, reader, are the lucky one.
Come. Meet me in the margin with my mother. There is so much magic here.
~ Karen ~
I also love carbonated water.
One thing that has been happening around here... coming home from the eye doctor with a patch over one eye, and using the elevator, there were people in the elevator. When i went in by myself I could turn around without scratching anything. They seemed to want me to join them, so I did, and when I backed out, I made a big gash on the side door in the garage, and that was caught on the tape, and so everybody knew. That I had a patch on my eye and that I did it. So now they are going to charge BJ and me. I started feeling bad about that. I think that -- I try to avoid using that elevator anymore and I use the freight elevator, but yesterday it was busy with someone moving. I used the regular elevator and luckily no one was there. I feel like I don’t want to be causing problems like that. I don’t want to cause expenses for BJ. I don’t feel that the board members in this building are interested in making it more accessible. They’re doing it little by little. They will put in more automatic door openers. I don’t feel like they really accept me here.
They’re still against putting a ramp into the lobby. But lots of people could use it. They don’t want it to look accessible. I don’t know about shame, but I feel angry.
And I know that anger can cover up a lot of feelings, like insecurity and frustration. Some people are prone to anger and don’t know what else they’re feeling. I have a hard time knowing that I’m angry. I learned from my mother that it was not a good idea to be angry. Haldis feels that she was viewed as too angry growing up. She felt people didn’t like her for that.
~ Anna ~
Here is the opening of the essay Karen started in 2005:
Imagine a sheet of paper with text written on it. The edge is where the paper stops and begins. The margin is the space between the edge of the paper and where the text begins. And the complexity, if it is there at all, is in the text.
Where is the edge of the world? I believe the place where I was born is part of it: just north of the Arctic Circle, not quite north of the tree-line, on a rugged coast facing the North Sea. The poverty ravaged fishing and farming community was home to a deeply religious population and was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The town was so far out on the edge of the world that I have often thought of it as belonging to the nineteenth century. I surely was surrounded by thoughts and ideas from nineteenth century when at three and a half I contracted polio. My parents were told by their neighbors that they must have done something horribly sinful and that God had punished them by giving me polio.
My mother was trying to center her own voice — in academia, within her family, on the written page. In a world that had marginalized her for decades, she understood that the complexity was only visible at the center of the page. But all of the hidden meaning of her life — her having been asked to submit a chapter in the first place, my clumsy attempt to support her English grammar, her whole life story edited down to several pages of stark but true sentences about her incredible life journey so far — was there all along in the margins, unfolding rapidly and beautifully and mysteriously. Her story has never been a center of the road story. At the beginning, she had to fight her way from the edge of the world into a mainstream setting just to have a marginalized experience.
And that is where I want to meet her — still encoding the meaning of her life in the marginalia. She is going through her old papers again, trying to figure out what to throw away. Which poem is an important footnote to her childhood? Which drawing deserves an asterisk? Which ideas merit further definition?
I am a white, able-bodied person with an increasing range of lived experience. But I carry a lot of middle of the road privilege and can still sometimes forget how much everything changes and be rapidly humbled again by a personal tragedy. My writing lives in the middle of the page, and my mother knows it. When she asked me to help her write the story of her life, she knew that I could get her onto the center of the page. I can and I will, for as long as she wants me to. But the center of the page is not her story. Her story lives in the marginalia of life. And our story meets in the margin in several ways.