These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

He Left Words on a Page

Posted on February 13, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes

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From my blog:

I was in the middle of writing another post, but this one needed to come out first. I spent all day hiding these words inside – please read them now and know.

As many of you know, there was a shooting yesterday in College Park, MD. It was a small shooting. Only three people were involved. Two of them ended up dead – the shooter and one of his victims.

But one death is all it takes. One death makes a shooting deadly. One death can collapse the worlds of ripples and ripples of people.

I am on the edge of one of these ripples. The victim who died was my classmate. We were not close friends. We saw each other for two-and-a-half hours every week. But the ripples reach far; the ripples are strong.

Twenty-one hours ago, when I learned of his death via Facebook, I sat in shock, staring at the screen. My hands went up to my face, toying with the possibility that it wasn’t really him, there was probably another Maryland student named Stephen Rane, that’s a pretty common name, right?

Not right. It was him.

Two of my flatmates were home, but I felt totally alone. How could they understand the blankness that now filled my insides? How could I tell them that there were a million tears behind my eyes and if I could only utter a few words they would come pouring out? How could I let them know that what I really needed was a hug – a really long hug that would surround me with a caring body and comfort me with the presence of human life?

But I couldn’t express it to them. Instead, I brushed my teeth, washed my face, put on my pajamas, and posted on Facebook about the life that was lost. Then I called my mom. And that’s when I began to cry.

After a few hours of intense, people-filled sleep, I rose to begin my day. There was no mechitzah minyan at Pardes this morning, so I prayed in an empty classroom, chanting all the prayers aloud, remembering how singing a few psalms last night had helped calm my breath, sending me to eventual sleep.

During my first class, there was a welcome surprise: my teacher brought in a 103-year-old restored Torah, and we spent a good hour looking at its burnished wood, stained parchment, and shiny, black letters. We rolled the scroll back and forth, marveling at the intricate calligraphy and the studied design of the text. The holy object sat there, simply, letting us examine it and absorbing the awe that we rained down upon it. It was beautiful, simple, constant. Holiness in a time full of holes.

The next class was a struggle. I left for a few minutes when I felt the tears coming. I knew I needed to talk to somebody, but couldn’t figure out who or how. What would I say? “Someone I had class with died yesterday.” That sounded really lame in my head, and in no way expressed any of my true thoughts or feelings. He wasn’t a close friend; he wasn’t a family member; did I have a right to be sad? Did I have a right to impose my sadness upon others?

So I was drawn to silence. Left to think about the life that was lost. Stephen Rane was in my Advanced Creative Fiction class last semester. It was a class of about fifteen – small enough to develop inside jokes and recognize each other’s writing styles. Stephen’s first story, called “The Dead Man,” was about an idiosyncratic college professor named Leonard who was followed by a floating corpse wherever he went. This is one of those stories that gives you the “This guy is a really good writer and the only thing that’s stopping insane jealousy from swallowing me up right now is the fact that I’m enjoying this story so much” feeling. You know, that one. The tone of “The Dead Man” is matter-of-fact,  the subject ridiculous, the result hilarious.

Stephen’s second story, entitled “Mothman,” was about a backyard monster whose presence ends up saving the protagonist’s relationship – at least temporarily. The story involves pancakes, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and a “folksy” expert named Bill McCloud. Again, magical realism at its witty best.

Stephen’s sense of humor didn’t only show up in his fiction, however – he brought it to class every Thursday afternoon. He was sarcastic, sharp, and honest in his critiques, always articulating his thoughts very clearly. During the workshop for my second story of the semester, a piece about two college students involved in a theater production, the discussion inevitably got around to the “theater-nerd” and the surrounding stereotypes. In the story, I had dressed my leading lady, Sarah, in jeans and a scarf, and Stephen pin-pointed this description as something that contributed to the “theater-nerd” image I had been trying to avoid. Then he and another classmate got on a rant about theater majors, including the fact that they always wear scarves indoors, what is up with that? At this point, my face was getting warm, and I was wishing that the “indoor scarf” I had worn to class that day was slightly less visible. My teacher, in an effort to get the class back on track, announced that, “in solidarity” with me and the rest of the theater world, she would put on her scarf indoors. And she did.

I was a bit disheartened by this discussion, but my teacher assured me that the conversation took this route because I had created characters that were real, and my classmates were trying to make them more so. After much deliberation and revision, I changed a number of things about the story that contributed to the theater major stereotype – dialogue, specific melodramatic images, etc. I did not, however, remove Sarah’s scarf. And now I never will.

In the small classroom with a seminar-style table, I always looked across the room at Stephen, happy that he was in class that day and ready to hear his comments on the stories presented. I admired him as one of those really cool people who I just wasn’t cool enough to get to know better. He had his life, he liked it, I happened to be in it once a week, and hopefully we both became better writers.

It is not fair that Stephen’s life ended yesterday. He had so much more to write – I’m sure of it. And it would have been really good. Everyone who was able to read Stephen’s writing was blessed with a few lucky moments of enjoyment and admiration. Hopefully Stephen can be remembered by the beautifully-crafted words he left on the page.