Sex ed. came early, arrived in the form of having us gather in a circle and ask. But first the teacher held up diagrams, unholy-ed the body with mechanics—ovum, tubes, minora and majora. I don’t remember any mention of pleasure, and I didn’t ask—(the first time I touched myself the elm flowered and I never considered the two blooms as an answer. The question was is pleasure a sacred act?) The teacher held up a tampon, passed it like besamim, asked us if we knew what it was and when Arielle guessed the tampon was a candle the room lit with laughter, I joined, knowing what it was, feeling somehow, the inner ache that awaited me and the teacher said something about the body needing to ready itself in order to receive, so I considered my fingers and how far I would need to root until something broke.
In teaching us that questioning The Word is sacred, one could say that every question is sacred. A child, I could not wrap my head around many things, a bookmark, for instance, or how a book could contain so many pages one would need to mark it. I asked my mom and she told me sometimes we can’t obtain the knowledge all in one sitting.
By now I know the hand is holy, it can perform so many tricks. But there is a law that says my skin and the scripture’s skin is a sacrilegious contact—why would god make an object that can’t be touched when, already, I’ve touched so many beautiful things? I’ll hold the yad for fun, but never recite from the Torah in any formal way—the parents and teachers are disappointed I don’t want to become a Bat Mitzvah, a woman in god’s eyes, even though it was years before when they let us loose in the woods for an entire weekend and the landscape told me truth that no hands or words will ever touch—
and in the woods they hand us a thick packet of questions. How to Identify a Tree by Its Parts. 1. Students should find plant specimens of their choice, or as specified by you, to identify but I’ve brought with me a separate notebook, one I hide among layers of clothes. At night I turn my headlamp on to witness my tiny, secret scrawl. The popular girl’s body—how many ways to metaphor the breast? Bud, budding, a flower—the body’s stalk? 2. They should observe the main structures of the plant. The camp counselor takes a group of us on a hike, while our teachers stay behind. It rained last night—we slide, muddy ourselves, and after, in the cafeteria, he removes the slender bar from his tongue, shows us how water can squirt through. In the packet, I describe the forest in spring—muddied, wet, buds. 3. They should try to identify the plant by its fruits or flowers (if not present, continue to step 5). Note the flower’s color, shape, size, and cluster type. I press leaves in-between thick glossed pages of books, and at night I try to write about the counselor, the hole in his tongue.
By the time I am fifteen, I wanted more than I’d ever wanted. I removed the mattress from my room, and didn’t miss it, my body so in flux. For years I slept with blankets and books in a giant heap on the ground, which meant maybe I hadn’t ever left the interpretive act of midrash—I don’t care if we erase the word
god it’s overused and you can roll it around in your mouth until it’s absent. I read that mysticism means absorption into the deity, attained through self-surrender —I wrote this in a high school journal, but mainly the entries began with a boy who visited me in my nest of blankets and books, his touch, the answer.
Why must we question in order to lead a religious life? I never think of a religious life as anything but, and it takes practice to try to say so. For instance, before college we spent three weeks in the woods, and three of those days alone. I thought those days would be my holy days—solitude, time lapping slowly forward. I chose to fast because god recognizes those who fast—I wanted to be in my body more. I got naked under the sun— I was hungry—and thought the sun would feed me, but there were so many flies buzzing, I couldn’t absorb anything. I had never seen so many and after three, four, ten hours, I grew loneliness out of hunger and flies. I dressed myself and tried to write, but all I wrote about were the flies. When that was finished and I still had days ahead of me, I killed one and took its pieces apart—transparent wing, compound eye, antennae—I pressed the parts in my notebook and wondered what night would bring and if the flies would return. I labeled the collection of parts “on trying to be in the light and failing.”
Brooke Sahni is an Indian-American poet and prose writer. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, she holds a BFA and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as The Massachusetts Review, CutBank, Spillway, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She currently lives and teaches in New Mexico.