What if the person you love envisions a different life than the one you do—in a different country with different religious views? In this experimental “memoir in miniature” titled Places We Left Behind, Jennifer Lang shares the complexities of navigating the hopes, expectations, and realities within a bicultural marriage as she relates growing apart—and together—in a relationship.
Lang takes us from Israel to Paris to California to New York and around again as she tells the story of finding herself perpetually “uprooted.” When a young Lang meets Philippe, all of her caution and what-ifs are thrown out the window as she, an American marries Philippe, a Frenchmen, in another country: Israel.
Do you feel like we just made things complicated? Philippe asks.
Wed less than 24 hours earlier and en route to France, I lean my head against his shoulder for take-off. My body fits seamlessly against his whether sitting, standing, or supine.
My parents are in one country, yours in another, and we’re in a third, he says.
Lang’s inner conflict throughout the work is emotional and relatable. As her husband falls harder into Judaism, eventually pulling their children with him, she falls further away, seemingly an outsider within her immediate family. However, when she begins practicing yoga, she finds acceptance and escape. In “Sacred” she says:
For two hours every week we gather to practice the physical poses and gab about the business of teaching, about our students’ issues, about injury-related questions, but rarely do we stop moving, face each other, and open up about our personal lives. They know nothing of my mixed marriage and our country-religion conundrum. They have no clue that I turn into Cinderella every Friday afternoon as darkness descends and Shabbat begins.
She asks the reader, “Dare I say Judaism is to him as yoga is becoming to me?”
Though her love for her partner never waivers, their differences feel insurmountable as they have children and move their family around the world in search of home. Where Lang feels at home, her partner, Phillippe does not; where Phillippe feels at home, Lang does not.
How can we raise kids if we’re so different? If he doesn’t accept me as I am?
Actually, he says, she doesn’t accept me as I am.
Places We Left Behind is a story of love amongst turmoil. One of the most vivid and captivating threads within this work is how Lang shows the parallel chaos happening in the places where they live. Lang uses experimental form by interweaving a series of vignettes, poems, and images to emphasize this. For instance, in “3:00 a.m. on January 18, 1991,” Lang interrupts a progression of vignettes with a poem retelling of her experience living in Tel Aviv and Haifa regions while Scud missiles fell:
we hear a haunting sound, dash down hall, grab cordless phone in kitchen, enter guest room, turn on light, slam door, seal with duct tape, snatch cardboard boxes from closet, rip open, remove protective guards, don gas masks, gag, hear husband say breathe (try not to gag), hear rockets outside windows covered with industrial strength plastic sheeting, gag, hear CNN report live in the Middle East (try not to gag), hear phone ring, gag, hear parents ask if we’re okay as they watch CNN report live in California (try not to gag), hear my muffled voice beneath hefty rubber mask say we’re okay, gag, I’m okay (try not to gag)
Later, in “Witness,” she writes of the devastation of being in New York when the Twin Towers fell:
This pacing helps the reader feel as on edge as Lang must have in those moments.
Places We Left Behind is a captivating account of trying to find “home” while balancing a commitment to one’s self with a commitment to marriage.
About the Reviewer
Aurora Bonner is an environmentally-inspired writer and teacher. Her work has been published through Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, Colorado Review, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Brevity, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Wilkes University.