by Jonathan Safran Foer
Published: August 2016
Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks in present-day Washington D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a spiraling conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home–and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear.
Jonathan Safran Foer is considered, by some, to be part of the New Sincerity or Post-Postmodernism trend started by David Foster Wallace and continued by writers like Dave Eggers. Accordingly, Here I Am is written in a completely unironic style and many of its phrases walk the thin line between universal truth and Hallmark greeting card. I can see how some readers might find this annoying, but I loved it.
For me, this was a novel about distances: the distance between who we are and who we want to be, between us and the people closest to us, between our real world and our imagined worlds, between what we say and what we mean. I loved watching the characters of this novel explore these distances and in so doing get closer to some sort of personal truth.
You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of.
There’s a Hasidic proverb: ‘While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.’”
The tiny distance from perfect rendered it shit.
At times, it was almost impossible to cross the distance between their bodies, to reach out. At times, it was impossible. Each knew the feeling so well, in the silence of a darkened bedroom, looking at the same ceiling: If I could open my fingers, my heart’s fingers could open. But I can’t. I want to reach across the distance, and I want to be reached. But I can’t.
Nothing could matter more. Without context, we’d all be monsters.
They were always becoming closer in the realm of doing—coordinating the ever-expanding routines, talking and texting more (and more efficiently), cleaning together the mess made by the children they made—and farther in feeling.
But he couldn’t cross the distance that didn’t exist. The vastness of their shared life made sharing their singularity impossible. They needed a distance that wasn’t a withdrawal, but a beckoning.
Distance begets distance, but if the distance is nothing, what is its origin? There was no transgression, no cruelty, not even indifference. The original distance was closeness: the inability to overcome the shame of subterranean needs that no longer had a home aboveground.
Her constant judgment carved through him like a river, creating two shores.
My bat mitzvah portion is about many things, but I think it is primarily about who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.
Let’s go to bed. Those four words differentiate a marriage from every other kind of relationship. We aren’t going to find a way to agree, but let’s go to bed. Not because we want to, but because we have to. We hate each other right now, but let’s go to bed. It’s the only bed we have. Let’s go to our sides, but the sides of the same bed. Let’s retreat into ourselves, but together. How many conversations had ended with those four words? How many fights?
I know that I went too far in what I wrote.”
“I’m telling you, you didn’t go far enough in what you lived.”
The sum of everything she hated herself for would never surpass her knowledge that in the most important moment of her child’s life, she’d been a good mother.
The cup was half full enough.
When you didn’t look both ways, when you ran with scissors—I wanted to hit you. I actually had to stop myself from hitting you. How could you be so careless with the thing I most loved?
In sickness and in sickness. That is what I wish for you. Don’t seek or expect miracles. There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.
When Deborah went into labor, Irv prayed to no one that she and the baby would be safe. When Jacob was born, he prayed to no one that his son long outlive him, and acquire more knowledge and self-knowledge than him, and experience greater happiness. At Jacob’s bar mitzvah, Irv stood at the ark and said a prayer of gratitude to no one that trembled, then broke, then exploded into something so beautifully unrestrained and full-throated that he was left with no voice to deliver his speech at the party. When he and Deborah didn’t read the books they were staring at in the waiting room of George Washington Hospital, and Jacob almost pushed the doors off the hinges, his face covered in tears, his scrubs covered in blood, and did his best to form the words “You have a grandson,” Irv closed his eyes, but not to darkness, and said a prayer to no one without any content, only force. The sum of those no ones was the King of the Universe.
Our stories are so fundamental to us that it’s easy to forget that we choose them.
And so it is with prayer, with true prayer, which is never a request, and never praise, but the expression of something of extreme significance that would otherwise have no way to be expressed. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.’ We are made worthy, made righteous, by expression.
I’ve raised my voice at a human only twice in my entire life. Both times at the same human. Put differently: I’ve known only one human in my life. Put differently: I’ve allowed only one human to know me.
because understanding oneself isn’t a prerequisite for being understood.
Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.
It’s the rare parent, maybe one in a hundred, probably fewer, who is able to watch her blind child approach an intersection and not grab his arm. It’s with love that they’re holding him back from danger, but they’re also holding him back from sight. When I teach children to ride bikes, there are inevitably crashes, just as there are with sighted children. But parents of blind children almost always take it as proof that too much is being asked of their child, and they step in to protect him. The more the parents want their children to see, the less possible they make it, because that love gets in the way.’
“‘How were you able to overcome that and learn?’
“‘My father left before I was born, and my mother had three jobs. The absence of love allowed me to see.’”
Whatever the conditions of your life, you’re never going to be happy if you use the word unfair as often as you do.
Their relationship was defined not by what they could share, but what they couldn’t. Between any two beings there is a unique, uncrossable distance, an unenterable sanctuary. Sometimes it takes the shape of aloneness. Sometimes it takes the shape of love.
Life is precious, and I live in the world.