Days Like Dominoes

I began composing this essay in my head earlier today while building and knocking down domino tracks with my son.  This context is important because I don’t know if all the thoughts I had whirling in my head that are competing in a tight economy of attention with my son’s demands for admiration and love still cohere, or if they’ve held together long enough to amount to something despite the repeated clattering of dominoes on the hardwood floor. This context is also important because it is the very substance of this essay. It’s an essay, if I remember correctly, about the shape of my thoughts as a mother during the intensified version of motherhood I’ve been experiencing at home with my family during the pandemic. 

My son likes to build and topple architecturally complex domino tracks with bright multicolored kinetic dominoes. These long COVID days when we come downstairs in the morning, he’s kneeling on the floor, building what he calls the “four-wide orb tower,” which is an oval-arrangement of dominoes stacked precariously high with a long fuse like a cartoon bomb. He taps one end with his finger and the creation splats on the floor.

The moment is so fast, and there’s so much it has failed to contain.  In my resentment at being woken up, I forget to admire the tower, to ask him how he made his decisions. Why the green this time?  Why a four-wide and not a three-wide?  I also forgot to notice what I will later know to be true— that he is adorable with his wild, shaggy pandemic hair, the dimples at the corner of his mouth, his fingers pointing emphatically at the plastic rectangles as they fall.  In the time it has taken for him to knock down his tower-orb, I have thought these thoughts: Why am I awake?  Do I have to be here in this house again today?  Where is my coffee?  And, also, I love him.

These are the distracted thoughts of a parent too tired to pay attention, and even these thoughts have to compete with the distracted thoughts of an academic too tired to finish a lesson plan.  Because in the same moment, I’m also remembering that I have a class to teach in a few hours, but I haven’t yet read the discussion posts that students were supposed to prepare in advance.  It’s a course on Modern Jewish history, and I’m thinking about that morning’s subject, a poem written by B. Judah Abravanel to his son Isaac.  Isaac had been sent to live with relatives in Portugal during the tumultuous events of the Spanish expulsion in 1492 and had later been forcibly baptized, while his father and grandfather fled to Italy.  I think of the father long separated from his son crying, “my palms have measured oceans, weighed / the dust of continents” and I’m brought back, by the sharpness of the contrast, into my present moment of a child demanding my admiring attention, even as it has already passed.[1]  My thoughts are all interrupted even before they begin, because it’s time to make breakfast.  But they’ll return to me later, when I’m sitting at my desk waiting for my students to sign in to Zoom, listening to the sound of my son’s Zoom first grade in the next room over: a fierce desire to be far away fighting viciously with a desire to cling to my son ever closer.

My thoughts these days are fraught, frazzled little things still precious even though they are as clumsy and malleable as the playdough jewels my daughter likes to shape.  Soft and gloopy thoughts, round as the circles under my eyes, or brittle thoughts as sharp as my short temper.  Jagged and fragmented thoughts that have shattered as I dropped them on the kitchen floor while preparing breakfast, or that have gotten lost together with stray Legos under the couch.  At night, like Yiddish poet Kadya Molodowsky, “I nod my head to the wall,” resigned that at least for today “I’m not going to solve what I haven’t yet solved.”  My thoughts like bright plastic dominoes clatter and echo in my mind, and I leave them where they fall.[2] In the morning they are where I left them, untidied.  My thoughts may seem as unimportant as the dishes I left in the sink to write this essay, but they must be thought, just as much as those dishes will have to be washed before the day is through.  They demand to be thought, even though it might be easier to holler “to hell with the poem, I need 120 New Shekels,” like Dalia Ravikovitch in “Making a Living.”[3]  The patterns of my time and thought have become like my son’s dominoes: easily knocked down and rebuilt, made meaningful through multiple iterations and repetitions, through boredom, messiness, and momentary achievement half-forgotten in the burst of tears that follows.

Perhaps these are the kind of thoughts that the Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin had as she stood atop a mountain reflecting on “fields like golden rivers / and trees on them like sails on ships” and attempted to lose herself within them, only to hear that “My baby was calling to me.” [4]  Do I stay, writing this essay, when my daughter is downstairs looking for her plush white rabbit, which I know is on the basement floor next to the board games?  Or do I go to her, stopping mid-sentence, trusting I can return to it later?  When I first read these words of Dropkin’s years ago, before children, I remember feeling there was a kind of subversive malice in the way she lingers on the mountains rather than rushing toward her baby’s cries.  Now my own urge to pretend not to have heard the calls of a child who needs me has become mundane, a daily, even hourly, occurrence.

Lately I have been wishing the books I read were categorized not by genre but by circumstance: works written with a migraine or a stubbed toe, works produced while waiting for a parent’s medical diagnosis, works written after an early morning jog, on a day when you are alone and have no plans, works produced in times of agonizing loneliness and boredom.  Is there a quality of thought particular to the commuter, aggravated by the screech of subway tracks, pressed tight against swaying riders in a sweltering car?  And what are the thoughts, these days, that have come about because those same thinkers are working from their own beds, computers resting on the pillows that they dream upon by night?  I think it unlikely that the conditions could change so fully and yet thoughts would be the same, focused as they are on a particular subject of inquiry, project, source, or methodology.  How does the embodied experience of living impact the work of the writer, and what would it be like to try to make those influences visible?  What is the relationship between work, or thought, and the places in which it emerges? 

I think about the work I have produced in this period of pandemic parenting.  I started translating a book by hand over the summer so my children wouldn’t think I was ignoring them at the screen as usual, but I couldn’t read my own handwriting, so I gave it up, returning to it later on my laptop when I had thrown the idea of limited screen time out the window.  I outlined an article, saved it, and never returned to it.  If there’s a piece I can write in a day, an hour, I leap at the chance.  The idea of writing an academic book proposal leaves me nauseous.  Meanwhile, I’ve produced reams of poetry. I’ve barely written poetry since high school, but recently, some combination of limited time and intense, demanding thoughts, and also my teaching, which includes much of the poetry referenced in this essay, has driven me to it.  The poems I write these days recycle the same images over and over again, touching my surfeit of simultaneous feelings and experiences in one small space, with limited time to process them. It’s poetry I often don’t revise but leave scattered, saved to my desktop with names like “poem at the dining room table #4.” Is this what Yiddish poet Chava Rosenfarb meant when she wrote “Once I would spin languid songs / with a lilt of barely heard chords. / Today my best poem’s a child. / My silence sings brighter than words.”?[5]  I once thought this a sweet poem about mother-love, the child a crowning achievement of the poet’s creation, more wonderful than poetry itself.  Now I wonder if there’s a feeling of defeat in this poem too, a tired mother who can’t put pen to paper and has to acknowledge that her child will always be better than the thoughts she’s not even fully able to articulate, so she might as well give up.  But then, of course, Rosenfarb managed to write her poem, and I’m writing this essay, and I refuse to believe that the fact that I’m pleased with the essay, as perhaps she was pleased with her poem, in any way calls into question the unshakable fact that I love my children with everything I’ve got.  Meanwhile, I take comfort in the company of such poets as Yiddish poet Malka Lee, who writes, “I’m sitting here in the kitchen writing poems / …I wrote them just like this, while cooking.”  It is after all possible to create in the midst of everything else.[6]

Living on the brink of interruption is exhausting and maddening, but also generative. When I’m writing, I probably should be doing ten thousand other tasks, and when I am doing those other tasks, my mind wanders to the page, even when I will it away, even when the thing I most want is to be present for my children.  This tension, this aching desire to be in the everydayness of my life at the same moment that I long to be outside of it, produces sudden shocks of creative inspiration, though it can be hard to find the time to capture this kind of thinking in the rush of other tasks.  I write poetry or take notes for things I want to say in class on little scraps of paper snuck under the table while playing board games or painting watercolors with my children.  My time is dealt to me with the turn-taking and complicated mechanics of a strategy board game, as full of whimsy as a roll of the dice.  One half hour for work, another for play so my husband can answer his work emails, now bath time, now teaching, now cooking dinner while listening to an audiobook.  The friction between these carefully separated blocks of time in my daily schedule, and the way they bleed into one another, produces brilliant colors, though often the colors dry out before they can ever be used. 

My fragmented thoughts, emerging as they do from my tired body contained these many months inside a house teeming with wild and joyous life as well as hours of soul-crushing tedium, in circumstances of global tragedy and personal joys and frustrations, exploding as they do in short bursts between the demands of each day, are not the thoughts I might have thought in some other life, some other time.  They are thoughts like broken colored glass, radiant in the sunlight, but easily discarded.  They are thoughts arising from days like dominoes, each one the same, lined in their rows and ready to be toppled, the shouts of a child’s glee accompanying each one as it falls, time and again.

Note: I am indebted to Adriana X. Jacobs for encouraging me to write this piece and for offering her thoughts on it, and also for her fascinating essay on the relationship between work and form, with which the present essay is very much in dialogue: Adriana X. Jacobs, “Money, So Much Money: Reading Tahel Frosh’s ‘Avarice’” in Dibur 5 (Spring 2018).  Many thanks also to Rachel B. Gross and Daniel Kirzane for their constant companionship and support, and to Arielle Angel for her generous feedback on this piece.

[1] B. Judah Abravanel, “Poem to his Son,” trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin, Judaism 41 (Spring 1992).

[2] Kadya Molodowsky, “Women-Poems,” trans. Sheva Zucker for her blog “Candles of Yiddish Song: Yiddish Poems About Mothers,” March 13, 2013.

[3] Dalia Ravikovitsh, “Making a Living”, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld in Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 165.  Thank you to Adriana X. Jacobs for leading me to this poem.

[4] Celia Dropkin, “In Sullivan County,” in The Acrobat: Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin, translated by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon.  Tebot Bach, 2014.

[5] Chava Rosenfarb, “Child,” trans. Chava Rosenfarb. In Sheva Zucker, “Candles of Yiddish Song: Yiddish Poems About Mothers,” September 14, 2012. 

[6] Malka Lee, “Mayn liber,” in Lider (New York: Idisher kultur gezenshaft, branch 1, Sholem Aleykhem kooperativ, 1932) with thanks to Joanna Lisek, who referenced this poem in a talk she gave for YIVO on March 8, 2021 about her work Kol isze – głos kobi­et w poezji jidysz (od XVI w. do 1939 r.) [Kol ishe: The Voice of Women in Yid­dish Poet­ry (from the 16th Cen­tu­ry to 1939)] (Sejny: Pogranicze, 2018).  The talk, “Leaving Behind the Froyen-Vinkl, Or How Women Functioned in the Male World of Yiddish Literature” can be accessed here.

Jessica Kirzane is a scholar, translator, language instructor, and editor in the field of Yiddish Studies. Learn more at