Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

From Robots to God

Robots fascinate me -- from the lowly, like the Roomba vacuum that whirs around your house sucking dirt off the carpet and knows not to fall down stairs or ram incessantly against the leg of the table in the middle of your room, to the humanoid ones that you see in science fiction movies like Artificial Intelligence or the organic, animal-looking ones in The Matrix. I think a lot about them, about what exactly they are, things or persons; I imagine conversations with them; I try to figure out how standing face to face with a self-aware machine will change my idea of who I am.

Friday nights I watch a SciFi channel show called Battlestar Galactica. In it humans are at war with machines, called cylons, whom they have created and who have rebelled against them. These cylons have learned to simulate the human body, down to its flesh and blood, so that some of them appear no different from humans. But the most interesting thing about them is that they believe in God. In gods, rather; the mythology of Battlestar Galactica is very close to the Greek. The cylons believe it is their divine mission to destroy humans because humans are such flawed creatures; humans kill each other out of greed and envy and are driven so powerfully by their instincts and most primitive desires.

The cylons’ religiosity puzzles me. They are supposed to be more rational than humans. So how can they be so compelled by the idea of God, how can they believe that they are God’s children? Why do they even need to believe that? I always thought that for a purely rational mind belief in God is unnecessary. A purely rational mind understands, and is at peace with, its place in the physical universe.

I’ve gone very abruptly a few years ago from being extremely religious to being a very confused but very determined agnostic. All I know for sure is that I don’t know. I work very hard to accept that my life has no greater meaning than the one I give it by my actions in my physical life, by what my body and my mind can do together. I wonder if this can ever cease to be hard work, if it will ever come naturally to me. It seems not. It seems that self-aware minds will always yearn, even despite themselves, after the divine.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Fearful Feast

The pig’s squeal pierced our ears. My sister, my cousin and I sat up in bed. It wasn’t yet dawn but we were awake. We’d be waiting for what seemed an eternity to hear that sound. It signaled that my grandfather had plunged his knife into the pig’s throat and that soon we’d finally be allowed get up. The day, every year, when my family slaughtered a pig to prepare for the winter holidays, we, the children, weren’t allowed to go out in the courtyard until the pig was dead. By the time we were dressed and stood huddled outside in the first freeze of winter the pig’s blood was already collected in a green enameled basin and left to coagulate, the blood stains on the concrete of my grandparents’ yard were hosed off, and the pig itself was lying in a nest of straw, the hairs on half of its body already singed with a torch by my uncle.

There was work for all the adults and all the children – the neighbors came to help in exchange for plum brandy and meat and a good meal of fresh pork with sautéed sauerkraut, the traditional dish to make the evening of the slaughter – from morning until night fell. Muscle and fat and organs had to be separated from each other, the intestines cleaned for making sausage casings (my sister was an expert at this), the bacon layered in wooden barrels with pounds and pounds of rock salt. Pieces of fat with threads of meat in it had to be cubed and melted into a big black cauldron to make cracklings and lard. My grandmother attended to this cauldron wielding an enormous wooden spoon. You had to be careful when you stirred because the fat splattered easily and left blisters on your arms. We didn’t have breakfast or lunch. When we, the kids, whined that we were hungry, my grandfather cut the ears off the pig’s head, salted them and chased us, holding the ears up and saying, “If you don’t want to eat these you’re not really hungry.” The men took long swigs of plum brandy straight from a green bottle marked with greasy fingerprints.

There was grease everywhere. The concrete in my grandparents’ yard was whitish and slippery. We had white moons of fat under of fingernails. Our shoes glistened with melted lard. You had to be careful lifting pots and pans, bottles and glasses, because they could slip from your hands in the blink of an eye. I was in charge of grinding boiled lungs and liver for one of the three kinds of sausage my grandparents always made. My hand slid off the metal handle of the grinder at almost every turn. From time to time I tore off a bit of boiled liver and ate it. My mouth filled with a dark bittersweet taste.

The fresh pork cooked with sauerkraut that we ate at the end of the pig-slaughter day might be the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. Everybody ate around a small square table, their faces shiny with greasy dirt from the day’s work, their hands red from the cold and repeated washings. It was completely silent at the table for a long time; you could hear only the clatter of forks, the gritty sound of a knife slicing into a loaf of bread, the thud of the slice falling from the loaf on the table. I ate way past the point of feeling full. I couldn’t have enough of the sweet moist meat or of the intense, quiet fellowship with the other people at the table. I felt that nothing could go wrong in the world for the rest of that day.

When I was older my parents let me watch my grandfather kill the pig. I looked at him as he held up the knife and stared intently at the pig’s neck to locate the jugular. I watched the pig’s body quiver, its snout wide open with terror, deafening squeals pouring out of it. I remember a row of men’s hands on the pig’s trembling back and sides, holding it down so that my grandfather could do his work swiftly. I remember the violence with which the blood spurted from the pig’s neck into the green enameled basin, the lessening convulsions of its body as the basin filled. I should have looked up at my grandfather’s face after he stood up, having done his work. But I didn’t have the courage to.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


When my grandparents flew back to Romania after a two-month-long visit, my grandmother said as she kissed me good-bye, “Take care then. I don’t think we’ll see you again.” She looked sure that she was going to die soon. She’s in her early eighties and worries a lot about having enough money for a nice funeral. She wants to sell the house she and my grandfather have lived in for almost fifty years and move into an apartment; she says they need to get used to small, enclosed spaces, that they have to get ready for their coffins.

I don’t worry any more about my own death. It seems insubstantial; I can’t think of it as a thing that’s going to happen to me but as a sort of nebulous passage into a state that is outside my mind’s ability to comprehend. But I do worry about the deaths of other people, those who are close to me and those who are strangers. I’m overwhelmed by how much is lost because of death. I berate myself for not having sat my grandparents down for an hour or two and asked them to tell me the stories of their lives, in all the detail they could remember, so that I can write down all that tangle of experience and thought that makes up who they are. I berate myself for not taking notes during family get-togethers, not recording the bits and pieces of my relatives’ lives that they are willing to share.

There’s a statistic that twelve thousand people die all over the world every day; this fills me with horror. It’s not horror at their physical death, which is part of the necessary order of things. But the fact that all those people’s minds, their inner lives, no longer exist, is unacceptable to me. I want there to be a record of every person’s passing, a record of all the billions of everyday lives that have materialized on this planet like a soap bubble then burst into non-existence again. I want to set up a booth, like Studs Terkel did, in train stations and airports over the world and ask people to tell their stories.

I don’t believe in life after death; the mind seems to me inexorably tied to the body. But that we should be so much when our bodies are alive, and nothing when our bodies are dead, doesn’t cease to confound me and, for this reason I think, keep me writing.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Another Poem

The Garbage Truck

The garbage truck sputters and rumbles.
Its green metal tusks gnash on the green metal bin.
Its wheels groan under the weight
of severed tree branches, meat-stained paper plates,
flower pots with green twigs still clinging to unwatered dirt,
empty cartons of hot dogs and cigarettes,
bulging plastic bags muzzled with red ties
inside which you can see an old bank statement,
apple cores, tangled dental floss, a handful of spaghetti
like a clump of hair sticky with dried blood.
Even a book at the top of the pile,
a swollen, rained-on copy of the autobiography
of Lauren Bacall.

I want to ask the garbage collector if
he ever worries about transporting dead bodies wrapped in carpets
in the belly of his truck; if he ever dreams
about the end of the world coming in a flood of garbage.

I want to ask him who, in the evening, after dinner,
takes out the trash at his house.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Beginner's Mind

In Zen practice, beginner's mind is a child's mind, unclogged by assumptions and preconceptions, but full of curiosity and marvel at the world. It's a mind that doesn't categorize and pigeonhole bit takes in the whole of a thing. It's a mind that doesn't know but simply experiences. It's a state I aspire to: openness and freedom and the courage to play as hard as I can, and to make mistakes.

It's been a long time since I've tried to learn something -- like drawing the human head -- about which I knew absolutely nothing at the start. I'd forgotten what it's like to be a raw beginner, to face a task you know you will fail at but that you have to complete anyway because in the failure there's a lesson for you to learn. I'm having a hard time coming to terms with this. I'm not used to being bad at something; I'm not used to not learning quickly what I need to know to succeed.

So here is the dark side of the beginner's mind: frustration and confusion and disorientation. There are so many rules to learn, about the curves of a line, angles, the play of light and shadow on the planes of the head, the proportions of the features. Then you have to teach the muscles of your hand to execute what your brain has understood. It's a messy business. It leads to pictures of deformed heads on your sketch pad, to chaotic smudges of charcoal in place of eyes and noses and chins. And the only way to get past this, the only way to get better, is to draw more deformed heads, hundreds of them, until you wear the akwardness and ignorance down and out of your fingers.

I struggle to find joy and pleasure in this kind of relentless, dogged practice. I remind myself that just keeping my head above water, showing up for class and filling the sheets of my sketch pad, are meaningful accomplishments. Perhaps that's the true secret of the beginner's mind: not openness and freedom, not fearlessness -- these great blurry generalities -- but the ability to see and appreciate small victories. Just practicing for ten minutes today -- drawing, writing, meditating -- no matter how badly, is good.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Bodies of Books

The public library building in the city where I grew up stood on a street thickly shaded by old chestnut trees. In the summer the white feathery chestnut flowers with tinges of red at the center covered the sidewalk. I crushed them under my feet as I entered the gate that led to the library's inner courtyard. The children's section was all the way in the back of the building. A flight of stairs led to a cramped lobby full of backpacks, and, in cold weather, of piles of winter coats. You weren't allowed to enter the children's section wearing your coat or hat or schoolbag.

It was always warm in the children's section; in winter I sweated as I walked up and down the rows, squatting to read the titles on the bottom shelves. The bookcases made a little fortress around you wherever you stood. You could hear the murmur of librarians' voices, the scrape of a chair's legs on the hardwood floor, the reckless shriek of a young child who'd found a picture book he liked. But these sounds seemed to come from a great distance, from another world. Sometimes I closed my eyes and just smelled the odor of hundreds of books piled together, that dusty, spicy smell of yellowing paper. Then I slid a volume out from the shelf, opened it at random the way people open the Bible to look for an answer to a difficulty in their lives, and started to read. This is how I discovered Romanian literature -- the good stuff and the not so good stuff written in praise of the Communist regime -- and Jack London and Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas.

After I painfully chose only three books, the maximum number I was allowed to check out, I walked up to the librarian sitting at an enormous desk covered with large mugs of pens and pencils and wooden boxes stuffed with frayed index cards. She stared at me over her glasses for half a minute before she stamped my library card. She didn't trust me to take good care of the books. She enumerated the fines for various offenses -- torn or stained pages, defaced front cover, losing the book altogether. She asked me if I understood all the rules. I said I did and hurried out with the books clasped against my chest.

For most of my childhood books filled me with both excitement for the strange miracle of words inside, and fear of the fragility of paper bound together with sweet-smelling, crumbling glue. It seemed reckless to choose such frail materials as ink and wood fiber to preserve the written word. Ancient civilizations knew better; they chiseled words into stone. But you cannot hold tablets of stones in your hands or on your lap; you cannot carry them with you to read while you're waiting for a bus or a train or a plane; you cannot own them just for yourself, for your own pleasure. They're enduring but inaccessible, like gods. Books are like human bodies, mortal, flawed but within your reach, and able to be loved as only flawed, mortal things can.

Friday, January 13, 2006

A Kind Word

Plastic heads stand impaled on black metal poles in the middle of the studio. They're tilted up and down, left and right, their grey faces expressionless. The students -- I'm one of them -- sit astride narrow benches arranged in a circle around the cluster of heads. I draw awkward lines with the bit of charcoal between my fingers, then rub them off with the edge of my hand. My palms are black from this constant erasing. A human head has never looked this strange to me. I manage to sketch the shape of an egg, and inside it black smudges of eyes and nose and crooked mouth. I wonder what I'm doing here, in Introduction to Figure Drawing. I have no talent for this at all.

The instructor, a short man with a lively step and a smile always on his face, stops behind me to look at my work. I brace myself for a criticism. But he says, "That's good. This is hard. You're doing okay." My courage returns. I sketch another head, then another. My hand becomes more confident. The prospect of drawing a hundred of these egg-shaped heads all tilted at different angles doesn't terrify me any more. I'm excited at how much there's to learn from it.

I underestimate the power of a kind word. I'm of the persuasion that no progress can be made in any endeavor, artistic or otherwise, without harsh criticism, without having your heart and your mind broken into pieces and put together again in the right combination to make you a good artist. No ecstasy without agony. I used to feel sorry for parents who oohed and aahed at the skeletal people and rickety houses their children drew with their first set of crayons. They couldn't be honest with their children, coudn't tell them the harsh truth that their drawings were mediocre, and that to become any better they would have to work and suffer more than they could imagine.

I had a revelation yesterday in my drawing class. What matters isn't talent or being told the truth that you don't have it. What matters is practice, and keeping alive the enthusiasm necessary to see you through the many years, the lifetime, of practice indispensable to mastering any skill. My drawing instructor had the great wisdom to encourage me rather than just shut the door in my face by telling me that I know almost nothing about drawing and have no natural talent for it, both true statements of fact.

There's a big difference between a truth that is useful to the person to whom you reveal it, and a truth that is not. Too often I don't make this distinction; I insist on honesty at any price. Sometimes this price is too high. A truth recklessly thrown at you can shatter your spirit and prevent your from learning and growing. What good is a truth like that?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

What I'm Reading

THE ARABIAN NIGHTS. Telling a story to save one's life -- something that not only Scheherazade does but also a good number of the characters in the stories she tells -- is such a strange, wonderful bargain. I was shocked to discover, reading these stories as an adult, how pervasive sexual transgression, particularly women's betrayal of men, is in this book. I read 1001 Nights as a child, in the Romanian translation, and all I remembered from that childhood reading was shrewd viziers, women peering through heavily curtained windows, glittering mountains of jewels, and gardens suffused with the perfume of jasmine. I often forget who narrates the story I'm reading at any one point because so many of them are told within other stories which are themselves nestled into other stories, like Russian dolls. This frustrates me no end but also forces me to rethink the concept of ownership of a story -- is there really one mind to whom it belongs?

RUNAWAY, Stories. This is Alice Munro's latest collection. It's simply wonderful. Munro is so patient with her stories; she lets them linger on the page, lets them build paragraph by paragraph into mansions of many apartments through which you can wander tirelessly and with undiminished joy. You get the feeling that you're not really reading but watching lives unfold before your eyes.

RASHOMON, and Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. I am mesmerized by this Japanese writer's prose: it's so measured, quiet, and clear as water. The stories take place in medieval Japan and have a deceptive simplicity and straightforwardness. There are touches of the bizarre, like the old woman who makes wigs from hairs she plucks from corpses' heads. But underlying every story is a deep and relentless concern with the intricacies of human life -- what gives it meaning (sometimes simply the desire to stuff oneself with yam gruel), how limited the eye and the mind are in seeing the truth.

Monday, January 09, 2006


The telephone stand was in the hallway, between the kitchen and living room door. It was rickety; its three plywood shelves slipped out of their grooves. A dog-eared telephone book sat on the middle shelf, precariously balanced. The phone sat on the top shelf, a cream-colored rotary. The bottom shelf was empty. I tapped it with my bare toes.

I'd stopped by the telephone stand on my way to the living room. I had a letter in my hand. The letter was from my mother to my father. The two of them had had an argument and weren't speaking. My mother had shut herself in the kitchen and was scrubbing the sink, the stove, the door of the refrigerator, going from one to the other with a wet dishcloth that she forgot to rinse. My father sat in an armchair in the living room, reading. My mother had handed me the letter for him without a word. There wasn't a name on the envelope but I knew who it was for.

I felt important to them in a way I'd never felt before. I felt not only that they loved me but that they needed me, that I was essential, vital to their relationship, a bridge between them. I stopped by the telephone stand to bask in this new sense of my worth. Then I went into the living room. My father lifted his eyes from his book, took the letter, read it, returned it to me. He said, staring down at his book, "Tell your mother I've got nothing to say."

Heart sinking, I delivered the message. I went back and forth between the kitchen and living room, transporting words that I only half understood. My parents ended up talking again, shouting at each other over my head in the hallway, by the telephone stand, while I tried to work out in my muddled head who was right, and to find the words that would express it in a way that stopped their argument.

There was nothing I could say, of course. But I got sucked back into being a messenger many times after that; I imagined I could make peace between my parents, and that was an intoxicating, irresistible prospect. It tempts me even now, when I've outgrown the naivety of childhood, when I'm married myself and know that peace in your family cannot be given only earned.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Big City

I spent the winter holidays with my husband's family in a suburb north of Chicago. On the Tuesday after Christmas my mother-in-law and I took the train downtown to look at the Marshall Fields window displays and walk around. I loved just wandering about in the big city. The bustle, the crowds, the rattle of the L-train, the sun glittering in the windows of skyscrapers, all filled me with energy.

We went to the Chicago Cultural Center. The man at the Information booth wore a tie with tiny yellow hippopotami embroidered on it; he handed us an armful of brochures. I stared open-mouthed at the stained glass dome, the mosaic floors, the black bronze banisters covered with leaves and vines. I hadn't been in a building this old, its history dripping from every detail of its architecture, for many years.

We stopped for lunch at Rhapsody; I had hummus with black olives and artichoke hearts, and the best pita bread I've ever tasted. I was ready to faint when I noticed that they offer a plate of artisanal cheeses after your meal. I had to pass, of course.

I couldn't resist stopping at the Chicago Public Library. The building is huge, brick-colored, with a frieze of enormous patina-green leaves that look like angel wings. There are water fountains inside; their bottoms glitter with coins. I felt the pressure of the thousands of books around me like two strong arms wrapping around me in an embrace.

In the reference section, nestled into the carrels, their bulging plastic bags piled around them as if to make a fort, slept homeless people. Women bundled up in winter coats with mangy fur collars, men with unshaved bears and dirty fingernails. Most of them were black. I felt suddenly embarrassed by my joy at seeing all those books.

This is the image that has stuck with me: black faces asleep against volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. I don't know what to do with it; I don't know how to deal with the hard reality that we build houses for books but not for people. Homelessness is a complicated problem, it's true; solving it isn't just a matter of putting up more buildings. But maybe we can begin with that. After all, a good many things begin with something as simple as a room of one's own.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Sound and Word

My inability to understand classical music, and to appreciate it on an intellectual level rather than just an emotional one, depresses me sometimes. I'm not adventurous in my choices of what to listen to; I go for the easy stuff, Beethoven's piano sonatas and symphonies, the well-known Mozart, Chopin, and -- the only Russian classical music I enjoy -- Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (the recording in which Patrick Stewart is the narrator).

Sound is a mystery to me. Scales, pitch, phrasing, timbre, the subtle nuances in the interpretation of a piece of music, are beyond me. I don't have a mathematical mind; perhaps that's the problem. I have never been able to read sheet music and hear the melody on the page in my head. I can't fathom how a composer transcribes the music he hears in his imagination into notes. I understand how words make up poems and prose, how color makes up a painting, how stone makes up a sculpture. But not how sound transforms into music.

A year ago I stumbled on a book called The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg. His approach is biographical -- an unfashionable one, he writes in the introduction. He discusses both the composers and their music, and he does it with verve and wit and insight. He's opinionated and has a biting sense of humor. His writing is vigorous and lucid; I get carried away by it. And I become impatient to listen to music I felt intimidated by, because now I have a guide to the sound, an idea of what to expect, what to look for.

I've become a better listener, but still one riddled with a lot of self-doubt. I take refuge often in Schonberg's book; reading about music anchors and calms me. Perhaps the pleasures of the ear aren't meant for me. But I still have the word.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Five Reasons To Be a Vegan, and Five Not To

To be:

1. Good solid hunger. As a vegan I get hungry a lot more often than when I was a vegetarian, and also more ravenously. I like this a lot. (This is due partly to my slight masochism when it comes to keeping my body healthy and fit, and partly to the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century, according to which thinness equates beauty.) I like it because hunger is a signal that my body is efficient in processing the food I give it, that it is better able to empty and clean itself. And besides, when I'm really hungry, baby carrots dipped in hummus are a treat fit for the gods.

2. Soy chocolate milk. It tastes better to me than regular chocolate milk. It's light and only slightly sweet and doesn't do a wild dance in my stomach.

3. More time in the kitchen. I know this sounds a bit crazy, but I love to cook -- and that includes the prep work of peeling and chopping. I'm in love with my Wusthoff chef's knife that I bought two years ago with a gift card my parents gave me for Christmas. Mincing garlic, slicing tomatoes, cubing potatoes are simply a pleasure now. Also, I love the challenge of converting recipes that contain dairy and eggs into vegan ones. I made some really nice waffles last week with soy milk and maple syrup and mineral water as the liquid ingredients.

4. Dark chocolate. It doesn't contain milk products and therefore has an intense, pure taste and the most wonderful smell. I eat it a lot these days for dessert and very seldom crave sweeter, creamier or more elaborate confections.

5. The planet. Self-evident.

And not to be:

1. Flatulence. I think I may be treading into "too much information" territory here, but to me this is the main drawback of being a vegan. I love beans and lentils and eat a lot of raw fruits and vegetables and my colon has a field day with them.

2. Family's dismay. My mom had just gotten used to the idea of my being a vegetarian -- it took four years -- and stopped pestering me to eat barbecued pork on the Fourth of July and turkey at Thanksgiving. (Just a bite! For protein!) She even bought textured soy protein for me and deep-fried it (!!) coated in egg and bread crumbs. And then I spring on her that I'm not eating eggs (or dairy) any more. She tells me I can be healthy even if I eat eggs and cheese. Okay, I say. I bite my tongue really hard because I don't want to start the animal rights argument yet again. She rolls her eyes and grabs a pen and her shopping list and asks me, "So what will you eat?" "Your killer eggplant spread," I say. She makes a killer eggplant spread. I see a tiny grin on her face.

3. Biscuits and scones. I can't imagine baking these without butter, cream, eggs. And a biscuit hot out of the oven... (big, deep, very deep sigh).

4. Ordinary restaurant menus. I've discovered I have two (if I'm really lucky) options when I go out to eat with my family: angel hair pasta with marinara sauce and the portobello mushroom burger without the cheese. And fries, sadly, delicious crisp fries. And no, taking my family out to a vegetarian restaurant isn't an option. My sister and father would go, but my mother, despite her best intentions, cannot hide her dissatisfaction with a vegetarian menu, doesn't eat what she orders and on the way home insists we stop for Chinese food or chicken tenders.

5. Cheese. My favorite is white cheddar. There are many wonderful artisanal cheeses out there now and I feel just the slightest pang that I'm not able to taste them. But I have no regrets.


I was much closer to my father than to my mother when I was growing up. My father and I had an intellectual connection; we both loved to read and to talk about books -- "philosophize" as my mother used to say, shaking her head. My father introduced me to good poetry and encouraged me to write.

My mother is a passionate but practical woman. She is a neat freak -- I'm sorry to say that I remember too many Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings spent dusting and vacuuming and mopping hardwood floors under my mother's hawk eye -- and loves to shop. She likes a good party and will sacrifice her time and energy recklessly to help people in need. I don't connect with her easily; I have to work at my relationship with her. She's made me and my sister the center of her life and I have to fight with her all the time, now that I'm an adult, for my personal space, for the right to make my own decisions.

And yet what I remember as the safest and happiest times of my childhood have almost always to do with my mother. (I begin to see now that my relationship with her is one of extremes: the worst and the best melded together.) She was always exuberantly happy for my successes, militantly on my side in any conflict I had with the outside world. Often her enthusiasm and love embarrassed me. But when I had nightmares and sneaked into her and my father's bed in the middle of the night, I always chose her side. I put my hand on her hip and touched her hot calf with my icy toes and was flooded with a profound, almost religious, sense of peace and calm and safety. Her body felt then, truly, like the thing that gave me life.

Many afternoons when my sister and I returned from school we found the kitchen table set for lunch, two white plates with spoon and fork over a white napkin, and between the plates a basket of bread covered with a rough hemp towel. A pot of soup, still warm, sat on the stove. My mother rushed home during her lunch hour to prepare all this for us. I didn't appreciate it at the time. I gobbled down my lunch and rushed off to do my homework. I didn't appreciate the harsh, homey smell of clean, starched bedsheets to which I fell asleep at night. I didn't know that home is a place of safety and comfort not only for the soul but also for the body. Emotional and spiritual comfort wasn't my mother's to give to me, in part because our personalities are so different. But she made home a place to return to, if only because it smelled of clean linen and good food.

That's not much in the grand scheme of things. But it was my mother's best. The ability to see this and be grateful for it is the biggest and hardest step I have to take in order to make peace with my parents.

Monday, January 02, 2006


I was walking back home from the post office on a very bright early spring day. I was thirteen years old. I wore my favourite red wool sweater. I'd had it since my tenth birthday and now the sleeves were a little too short for my arms, the armpits a bit too tight. The sun beat down on my back, and a brisk wind flapped playfully against my face.

I turned the corner onto a side street and almost collided with a group of gypsies. The women wore long pleated satin skirts, pink and orange and lime-green; the men were dressed in black suits and black hats, with long black mustaches on their pale, almost translucent faces. The men laughed and pressed up against the wall of a house. I passed by them breathlessly, looking straight ahead. At the last moment one of the men grabbed my breast. It happened in an instant. The next the gypsies had turned the corner and I was by myself again. I heard a faint echo of whistles, then just the hum of the traffic.

I told myself, with shame and disgust, that I should have worn something else. That red sweater was too tight; a strip of skin showed between the waist of my pants and the hem of the sweater. It was my fault that that gypsy had touched me. I should have worn something black and baggy; I should have crossed to the other side of the street; I should have pressed my arms over my chest. It was my fault.

But it wasn't.

I started thinking and was compelled to write, for the first time, about this because of some intriguing and eye-opening comments on my blog on full purdah. The complete covering of a woman's body and face can be a protection against sexual violation, of the visual kind at the very least; and at the most it signifies that the body behind the veil is untouchable, sacred, of uttermost value, so that it has to be protected, hidden from roving, ravenous eyes. This is one solution to the problem of the devouring male gaze. It's a tempting one because it's so uncompromising; it makes very trenchant judgments about what the male and the female body are.

I respect the choice to wear full purdah. I understand that for some women (not all -- it's important to keep this in mind) it's a conscious choice, and that to them full purdah is much more than what it first appeared to me, a symbol of oppression and of the male ownership of the female body.

But I want to suggest that another solution exists to the problem of women's sexual violation by the male gaze. It is possible for us, both men and women, to change our understanding of the female body as something that is violated and the male body as something that violates. (To some extent, this view is warranted by biology, by the differences between male and female sexuality). In this view the female body has to be hidden in order to be protected. But I cannot accept hiding as the only option. I cannot accept it because hiding suggests that it's the female body that's responsible for the violation, that it's the female body that invites it, that it's the female body that bears the responsibility -- the guilt and the shame -- for the violation.

And it isn't.

It's absolutely essential to understand clearly who the victim is and who the perpetrator. As long as there's confusion about this, hiding the female body will be necessary to protect it. We have to learn to see the female body as having intrinsic value, not simply as a territory that is there to be conquered, that invites conquering by its very nature. I think this is important. I understand also that it is ideal, and that the world we live in is a messy, confusing, complicated place, not very kind to ideals.