The Hamsa Blues
I often dream I am ambling through the rooms of my childhood home. The air is a sepia color, and particles of dust swirl around me until I cannot catch my breath. I know the water stains on the ceilings so well. They are Rorschach tests of plumbing disasters that my mother tried to keep at bay with magical thinking when she lived alone those last years of residence at the house. I run my finger over the cracked shower tiles. Grimy dirt fills in deep lines where paint has chipped and separated.
I am in my girlhood bedroom with the pink shag carpeting. I am depressed in the dream. I am depressed in real life. I try to keep my depression in check with my own magical thinking. I’m practiced at glossing over the hard stuff. Maybe that’s the problem.
The depression will go away. It always goes away. It has to go away. And then it doesn’t. The serotonin levels in my brain are depleted.
After this recurring dream of wandering again through the house on Asylum Avenue – yes, Asylum Avenue – a street name that is a hack from the universe revealing my state of mind – I throw open the windows in the home I share with my husband and two children. I never dream about my current house, 100 safe miles from where I grew up. I suppose I don’t dream of wandering through my house looking for an exit because it has good bones, a good aura.
Like my mother, I keep a messy house. When I try to clean up, I am like the fisherman who catches and releases what they have caught. It’s hard for me to throw things away. What if I eventually need them for writing fodder? What if, among these things, there is a way to capture elusive, dissipating happiness? What if I miss the information that will awaken my soul? What if among the stuff there is a good luck charm that I only have to reactivate by reclaiming it? What if, what if, what if, what if. I am an expert at dreaming up nightmares, asleep or awake.
Come spring I throw open the windows to let in the air. Breathe, I command myself. But drawing deep breaths doesn’t calm me. I get down on my hands and knees to search for a small earring that I’m sure I have no hope of finding. It’s not unusual for me to be looking for small things I have lost. When I do this, I will settle for any random jewelry, coins, or the scrappy notes of miscellaneous musings I find under my dresser. But I slowly realize that it’s not precisely jewelry I’m looking for. Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to a friend in which she said, “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.”
I grab a flashlight to look for myself and instead spotlight dust bunnies and cobwebs draping the furniture. I see the clump of jewelry first – a tangle of pendants. I remember my nerves thrumming with anxiety when I tried to take apart these chains with its trio of hearts, an animal charm, and gold circles and squares. This jumble of jewelry that has fallen behind the dresser reminds me of an image I read in an essay about learning to play the piano in middle age.
The corpus callosum – a tangle of nerve fibers connecting the left and right sides of the brain – is thicker in professional musicians. Learning an instrument at any age is proven to increase grey matter volume in different regions of the brain and strengthen the connections between them.
The corpus callosum is a large bundle of more than 200 million myelinated nerve fibers that connect the brain’s two hemispheres, permitting communication between the right and left sides of the brain. Abnormalities within the corpus callosum have been identified in maltreated children.
Maltreated children – children, raised with cruelty and violence. It sounds so casual. Everything goes back to those early years on Asylum Avenue. My brain’s right and left sides are at war. My mind has turned on me, the war inside me rages. Hyper-vigilance, my old shadow companion, is back. I am scanning the horizon for enemy ships and terrified of being torpedoed.
Maybe I am like the catch and release on a fishing vessel – I am captured and then liberated. The fact is, I have a mental illness I am forced to re-engage with constantly. I am always ill at ease. Dis-ease.
And then my thoughts are interrupted. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it – glowing ocean blue –the hamsa. I lay it on the palm of my hand, this ancient charm believed to be irradiated with luck and blessings. The hamsa is shaped like an open-palmed hand with five fingers pointing downward, indicating something is to be recovered. It sometimes has a small jewel of an eye embedded in it, which functions to ward off evil spirits. A person wearing the hamsa telegraphs they are beyond harm’s reach – good luck bands their world. The hamsa is also nuclear, turning hot then cold. “You blow hot and cold,” my father always scolded me. Prescient. My hamsa is turquoise marbled with streaks of pink. It suddenly quiets the maltreated child inside of me.
Before there was an alphabet there was the hamsa with its ancient and communicative powers.
The hamsa is among the most recognized ecumenical symbols in the world – a piece of blue hope for the three monotheistic religions The word comes from the Arabic khamesh, and the Hebrew word for five, hamesh. Muslims call it the Hand of Fatima, after the prophet Mohammed’s daughter. Christians refer to it as the Hand of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Jews know it as the Hand of Miriam, Moses’ rebellious and righteous sister.
That phrase, the Hand of Miriam, is a phantasmic intervention. How I miss Miriam, my best friend. It’s too facile to say that Miriam, decades older than I, was like a mother to me. I am weary of mothers and never longed for a replacement. It was Miriam’s unconditional love that bonded me to her. I held her hand as she was dying. “I would never have survived without you,” I told her dry-eyed. Her last words to me were, “Everything I did for you, I did out of love.”
Catch and release. I cried a torrent of tears in the taxi on the way to the airport.
The hamsa I hold does not have a symbolic eye. It is stark and to the point in its simplicity. It does not judge. Here is what I treasure most about my old, newly discovered hamsa: Its blue shimmers with holiness and blessings. The Torah mentions a shade of pure blue 49 times – a gorgeous, transcendent color beyond description especially in the whirring post-modern era. In Hebrew, this blue is called tekhelet. No one knows what it looks like anymore. The Talmud surmises that the high priests of the Second Temple wore clothing dyed in this biblical blue.
Let’s call this elusive blue color, Hamsa Blue. Have I discovered a fresh color on God’s palette? My Hamsa Blue is so extraordinary the high priests’ ancient prayer vocalized it through chants that saturated the sky over Jerusalem. Biblical blue is the color of fantasies, and so is my hamsa.
My hamsa tempers brutal realism with soft magic. Holding his head in his hands, my father used to whisper, “I’m so blue.” I’m so blue too, Daddy. It oppresses us, doesn’t it? It’s like facing Picasso’s severe monochromatic painting from his Blue period. It’s the blue of the post-partum depression that descended on me like clockwork at dusk after my baby girl was born.
I have been cracking up over the past couple of months. Small veiny cracks that web across my psyche. Holding the hamsa, the Hand of Miriam, I wonder if I can spackle those cracks with Hamsa Blue. I know that even if my luck rebounds, the cracks will still be there, glittering this blue of hope and recovery.
The high priests were God’s vessels. I am modern psychiatry’s vessel, living on the divides of love and hate, rage and acceptance. I know I’m in trouble when these moods bleed into one another. I will a truce in my brain, but my latest cracks have spread quickly after a bad medicine interaction. What is the point of swallowing pills every day to regulate my serotonin? “I want my life back,” I sob to my psychiatrist.
I bought my small blue hamsa in Krakow, close to Auschwitz. I was a catastrophe tourist in Poland – on a trip to memorialize fellow Jews who became wisps of gray smoke floating out of Auschwitz’s crematorium chimneys. As I walked the length of the camp, I was confused, numb, and embarrassed that I could not cry like the others around me. Later that day, I saw my blue hamsa twinkling in a shop window. I was in a Krakow neighborhood that had been eerily emptied of its Jews during the war. Also on display in the window were dolls, a foot high or so, caricaturing Jews by way of beards, hook noses, and shifty eyes. It was as if these dolls replaced the Polish Jews murdered down the road.
I come by my un-ease and my dis-ease, honestly. I picture my paternal grandmother’s serotonin levels seeping out of her brain like a surrealist painting. Her brain was jolted with crude electroshocks to contain spillage. She only had a block of wood to bite down on as she convulsed.
It was the 1920s, and my grandmother’s doctor ordered that she periodically be thrown naked into a cold shower. She crouched in that shower – a pit of utter despair. This barbarity is what I call the snap-out-of-it treatment, which never disappeared any woman’s depression.
Decades later, I crouched half-clothed in a shower where the cold water pinged me like needles. I was 19, and my mother screamed that she would commit me if “I didn’t get a hold of myself.” My parents reluctantly took me to the emergency room, where the intake person was a girl, I had gone to high school with. “What are you doing here, Miss Salutatorian?” A beat later, I signed paperwork I did not understand. Nadine softly said, “I’m here.” Nadine – a good luck charm manifested – the Hand of Nadine. She came back to check on me as I shivered on a gurney in the hallway.
It turns out, I’ve found what I was looking for. I thread the hamsa with a gold chain and can feel the gentle hands of the ages brush against my nape. The charm sits on my chest as I draw breath. Catch and release. Catch and release of memories.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets from Mandel Vilar Press. Her essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and Boston Globe, essay anthologies and literary magazines. She is the recipient of numerous writing fellowships. She recently won her fifth Rockower Award from the American Jewish Press Association and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee.