Mazel and Schlimazel
Here is a relic of my childhood: Mazel and Schlimazel, or The Milk of a Lioness by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer tells us a story of two spirits, Mazel (good luck) and Schlimazel (bad luck) and the wager they make one day after Mazel has been boasting how happy he makes people and that everyone loves him, but no one loves Schlimazel. (And I have to say, even though Mazel is basically a good character, he is pretty obnoxious right at the start. But he quickly gets better.) Schlimazel gets understandably riled. He claims that whatever Mazel can do in a year, he, Schlimazel, can undo in a second. And the bet is on.
Mazel seeks out the poorest hut in a poor village and finds Tam, a young man beset by bad luck. And here’s where I start to love Mazel. He sits down next to Tam in his shack with toadstools growing from the walls and gets to know Tam. Even though Tam isn’t really aware of him, Mazel asks Tam questions about himself and while Tam talks — to himself, he thinks, but really prompted by Mazel — Mazel pays attention. Mazel and Schlimazel is a children’s book, a short story — a fairy tale, really — but at this moment in the story the words and illustration depict a moment of genuine companionship.
From here, of course, Tam’s life promptly improves. His luck changes. He is brought to the attention of the king and the princess.
After a good bath and a change of clothes, Tam quickly rises from the court smithy to the court proper.
And while Mazel helps every step of the way, the story makes it clear that Tam is doing the work. Mazel’s presence might have prompted the king to give the young man a job, but Tam labors to do well. And Singer reminds us that “When the humble achieve success, they often become haughty and forget those among whom they grew up. But Tam always found time to help the peasants and the poor.” Tam’s kindness is all his own and not a veneer imposed by Mazel. Tam’s rise becomes a joint effort. Mazel provides opportunities and Tam earns the next chance that Mazel makes possible. Mazel and Tam build on another’s efforts. That’s teamwork, people.
Tam and Nesika, as we would expect in a heteronormative story such as this one, are in love. The king (who never gets a name and has class issues), much as he likes and values Tam, continues to hold onto hope that Nesika will find a prince she can tolerate sufficiently to marry. Nesika (and here is another aspect of the story I love), however, is no mere passive prize. In fact, when we first meet her, she has been driving her father up the wall for refusing suitors for eminently sensible reasons. One laughed too much, another would only discuss fox-hunting, a third beat his dog. The latest suitor (number seven) Nesika rejects “because his boots were foolish.”
“‘How can boots be foolish?” her father asked.
“‘If the feet are foolish, the boots are foolish,’ Nesika replied.
“‘How can feet be foolish?’ her father insisted.
“‘If the head is foolish, the feet are foolish!’ Nesika retorted.”
Nesika is one smart cookie.
But, naturally, a day comes when an impossible task must be accomplished. Tam volunteers to get the necessary milk of a lioness, and the king is so touched he says that when Tam returns, he may marry Nesika.
So off Tam goes, Mazel riding unseen on his own horse right behind him. A lioness with cubs is conveniently hanging around right outside the city, and Tam, thanks to Mazel, strolls right up, milks her, and pops back on his horse. (There is an amusing moment, one that I find a little poignant, when Tam and Mazel leave, in which the lioness comes out of her luck-induced haze and realizes what was done to her and is terribly embarrassed and angry. I don’t blame her for feeling pretty violated.)
Tam returns with the bottle of milk and presents it to the king just as the year is over. Schlimazel steps up and, in the single second that he’d said he would require, causes Tam to mis-speak a single word and the whole house of cards that Mazel and Tam had built so carefully over the course of the preceding year comes crashing down and Tam is sentenced to hang.
And this moment in the narrative is the one that has been on my mind lately. If you want to know how the story ends, you’ll have to read it yourself, which you should do anyway, because it’s a really good story.
The Personal and the Political
This pivotal moment in Mazel and Schlimazel has come back to me often as I have been struggling with both personal and political issues about speech (and yeah, yeah — I know: the personal is the political, but bear with me. I offer my distinction as point on a continuum, not as a dichotomy).
We have all seen, over and over, the harm done by words carelessly or viciously deployed, seen the way these words are making our cultural landscape into something twisted and bleak. Tam’s verbal mis-step and the consequences of a words rose to mind last month when Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth declared the entire Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) to be unconstitutional. With a word (well, OK, a set of words, but ones that amounted to No), Judge O’Connor may have swept aside all the good that the ACA has wrought: coverage for young people through their parents, the slowly stabilizing cost of insurance, coverage for those of us (and we are legion) who have pre-existing conditions. The ACA is far from perfect; we need a Congress willing to pitch in and work together in good faith to argue and compromise and give a damn about the citizens of this country for that to happen.
The rescission of the ACA might not condemn any to hang, but it will cause deaths — slower deaths from illness, injury, despair and poverty from exorbitant medical costs rather than from the rope, but deaths nevertheless. The word of one man can take away essential care from so many — our friends, our families, our neighbors, ourselves — care that can save lives, save minds, and save souls.
And this kind of sudden reversal is not affecting health care only. We are seeing the accelerated destruction of the environment, of foreign relations, of civility, of children’s lives — brought on by ill-chosen words and inexcusable silences. We are seeing years of work and progress undone in moments.
My memory of Tam’s reversal and the degradation of political discourse and practice also connected with me in a more personal way. The personal aspect again has to do with health, my health. Several years ago, I was on high doses of Prednisone for some months. The drug messed with my mood and memory; I recall very little of those months, nothing of what was happening in my son’s life, fragmented scraps of my daughter’s college graduation. For most of that time, I had to sequester myself because I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. I felt terribly isolated from the people who were important to me and from myself. (Let us give thanks for good therapists.) I usually call my mother a few times a week. It was unsettling to go for more than three months without talking to her.
While I still don’t remember the months I was on the Prednisone, most of my memory is back. The deficit remaining lies in my ability to retrieve my words. I often struggle to get the word I want, the word I can feel in my mind, to come out my mouth. Instead, I hear myself say something that starts with the same letter but is otherwise completely unrelated or a word that has some relation to the word I know is in my head. The link might be somewhat similar in meaning to or the complete opposite of the word I want, but there will some kind of connection that makes sense to me. The result is that, often, I, like Tam, spout out the wrong word at important moments. So far, as far as I know at least, no one has died, though I often feel terribly awkward. No one warned me how drastically the drug was likely to affect me, and no one told me that the effects might be lasting. (Again, my situation is not strictly analogous to Tam’s. No one has tried to put an actual noose around my throat. It just feels like that.)
I have been living with aphasia ever since.
Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.
That’s how Meghan Beaudry describes the bewildering, frightening experience of losing her words. Amy Roost, author, host of the podcast Fury, multi-talented and -accomplished wonder woman (Check out her web site. Go ahead. I’ll wait) sent me a link to Beaudry’s article, “A Brain Infection Destroyed My Marriage, But Made Me a Writer.”* Beaudry’s aphasia was inflicted by cerebritis, not medication, but like her, I had to “claw back” (exactly the phrase I hold in my mind) my ability to find my words. It’s still a struggle, almost eight years later. And her relationship to language is much like my own. Beaudry “balked at learning to navigate a new computer or phone, but cherished language, treating my words like pets and people: each with their own personalities and preferences….” Losing my words was like being unmoored. snatching at frayed threads instead of have a solid rope to secure me to my life.
Again like Beaudry, I continue to replenish my word hoard, but it is frustrating for me and for those with whom I try to communicate to wait around while I fish for words, needing the right ones with the right shades of meaning for my verbal palette. Poor Tam had a single moment of mis-speaking and was condemned for it. I live with the fear of condemnation, of being judged inadequate or unintelligent, of having people impatiently fill in my pauses and thereby let me know that I am taking up too much of their time.
Returning to the more overtly political, I wonder how many of those who claim to govern for us understand the power of their words, they way they are creating a world of flourishing hatred, selfishness, vituperation, viewed through a lens so narrow that no light seems to get through. I think most of them are aware; I suspect few of them care. Tam (though he didn’t know it) had the excuse of being momentarily beset by some really bad luck; others of us have conditions that make it difficult to find the words we need. But Tam and most of us struggling with impediments work to correct our errors, though we may not always succeed. I don’t think many of our politicians and lawmakers can say the same.
I’m not much of a fashion maven, but I suspect that if we check the footwear of many —too many — of the people in power, we will see that they are wearing dangerously foolish boots.
*Beaudry’s story is headed by a photo of a snail slinking along the page of a book. It’s an apt image: finding words now can be a slow process, one that doesn’t necessarily stay on track, though at least it’s not usually slimy.
OK, OK: I’ll tell you how the story ends, but not how it is resolved, so you still have to read the book. Tam avoids hanging, he and Nesika get married, and Tam and Mazel remain friends (even if Tam doesn’t know it). And here’s another great aspect of the story: when the king dies a timely, totally non-suspicious death, it is Nesika who ascends the throne. Tam happily inhabits his role as consort, providing advice to Nesika when she requests it. But it is Nesika who rules the kingdom.