Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a simple collage I made over a quarter century ago, after getting my heart broken. The message it transmits is no longer one I want to reiterate to myself, but I have left this little creation out, within view, because I still love Kafka. And because, as a writer trying to fathom the mystery of my own existence, I have to look back to that young artist whose fears and desires shaped the life I have now.
Affixed to a square piece of poster board is a smaller square of yellowed paper; a quadrant showing the pointillist face of Kafka in four phases of dissolution. In the upper left corner is a complete image: wavy, parted hair, elfin ears, thick brows, otherworldly stare. In the lower right corner, the all-seeing eyes are rimmed with darkness. The right side of the face is all but gone and the left side is shadowed. There is a cluster of letters above the thick, black brows: L I T E R A L I T E R L I. As the tubercular-looking man fades, his legacy – the words he has left behind – grows.
Glued below this four-part portrait is a neat strip of paper on which I typed, in all caps:
THE JOURNEY IS SO LONG THAT I MUST STARVE TO DEATH IF I RECEIVE NOTHING ON THE WAY. NO PROVISION CAN SAVE ME. FOR HAPPILY IT IS A TRULY GIGANTIC JOURNEY.
This was my solution, at twenty-four: Just Write. That last, miraculous eight-word sentence – the headspinning unexpectedness of it, the discordant notes adding up to an indissoluble alloy of terror and joy – made me feel that writing was a religion to which I could happily sacrifice life.
Fifteen years after making that collage, I met Leah Lax at Yaddo. While some of us handled the free-time-bonanza that was a few weeks in an artists’ colony like addicts on a bender, disappearing into studios and interacting as little as possible with others, Leah was like an open water swimmer: at the end of the day, she stepped gracefully out of her creative flow, and you could tell she had covered distance. She was grateful to be among people, breaking bread, and she was grateful to return to her solitary work.
One afternoon, we went for a walk around the lake. We talked some about our lives and more about our projects: mine was a play based on the life and art of a Canadian painter, and Leah’s was a memoir about leaving her Hasidic community and beginning life as a secular lesbian. She had converted in her teens and her attraction to orthodox life had come, in part, from her desire to study holy written teachings, though of course her study was restricted because she was a woman.
Hearing her speak about the pull of the words themselves, about the world of light that opened out beyond the forest of little black symbols on the page, was to hear my own silent feelings given voice, even though my interest had only ever been in literature.
When, years later, we became friends on Facebook, I felt I could see Leah’s life story flowing by, a stream of photos and articles and videos and notes. In 2015, after ten years together and three months before gay marriage was legalized nationwide, Leah and her partner traveled from Texas to D.C. to tie the knot. Within months of this, her memoir was out in the world, and suddenly, Leah was uncovered: she and her book seemed to be everywhere.
Part of the beauty of Uncovered is in how Leah conveys the love she felt for the rituals and language and the community in which she lived, while revealing her slow but neverending struggle to reconcile with her religion’s negation of the female. Throughout the book, she describes different experiences of mikvah, a ritual bath for purification after menstruation, communicating not just the details of an ancient and gynophobic ceremonial practice, but the solace and silence of women-only rituals.
From an early age, Leah’s secular life was infused with a love of art and music – her mother was a painter and Leah was a cellist. (She still plays.) We learn that disorder and mental illness in the home spawned her craving for a rigidly ordered life and witness the breaking away from her Law-governed life as complicated, frightening and often painful. Yet the recurring motif of ritual immersion crosses over seamlessly from her religious life to her artist’s life when she collaborates with photographer Janice Rubin on the groundbreaking Mikvah Project. In other ways, too, we see that art and the sacred have always been intertwined in Leah’s life.
A few pages into Uncovered, I found a line that reminded me how Leah and I had slid into such easy, heartfelt connection: “I would remain obsessed with grasping strange language for wordless things.” And toward the end, a description of her new belief system, which may explain the innumerable FB pictures of Leah smiling – at readings around the country, with Susan, with dog, with Dvorak piano quintet, with other writers: “Such a good, quiet joy rises in me, a profound sense of simple being, of presence… We are simply here. Now.”
Stacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.
Read Stacey’s “In the Classroom” piece on Vivian Gornick’s book The Odd Woman and the City here.