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, March 30, 2006


So, she was my friend. My best friend. For two years in high school we shared a desk. She dubbed herself a hippie and wore her long chestnut hair uncombed, scribbled in ballpoint pen on the tops of her hands and the insides of her arms -- a few months later, in place of the lines of ink, there would be scars from cutting herself there, burning scabby traces of the initials of a boy she'd fallen in love with -- and copied her homework and exam answers from me.

I was terribly studious and resented people copying after me. But Moni was different. I fell in love with her. She lent me books on transcendental philosophy. In her cramped room, sitting on her unmade bed, smelling the faint stale smell of her sheets, I listened for the first time to The Doors and Janis Joplin. She took me to my first rock concert -- though, it is true, she abandoned me to smoke pot in the back of the concert hall with her wilder friends. I didn't mind at all letting her copy after me. That seemed, in fact, a small price to pay for all the new things she was showing me. It seemed a small price to pay for the mixed but intense pleasure, unusual for me, of catching my parents look at me with eyebrows raised and pursed mouths. Before I became friends with Moni I didn't break any rules. I was the perfect daughter, a goodie-two-shoes. I didn't know I could be anything else. I didn't know I could want to be anything else.

But Moni was too fast for me, too reckless. I couldn't follow her in all the dark places where she wanted to go. She didn't care about leaving me behind. She stopped talking to me one day. She skipped more and more days of school. When she turned up her face was grey and her eyes blank. I walked her home one day although I knew she didn't want me to, and I tried to talk to her about what was happening. She was drinking and doing drugs and smoking and not sleeping. She was cutting herself. I talked and talked and heard myself sound like my mother. Moni didn't say anything. "I want to help you," I kept saying, lamely. Moni looked at me with a tired, sickened expression on her face. "Give it up," she said.

I did. I'm sorry for it to this day. I don't know what I could have done. I don't know how I could have loved her better. She's in Australia now, and she had a little girl. I try to picture her as a mother, and my heart just gives. I try to imagine what I would say to her if I saw her again. And I can't think of any words, trivial or important, to break the silence. We failed each other so extravagantly; I loved her so naively, without the courage to know her deeply, and she was rightly careless with that kind of love. My parents were immensely relieved when I stopped bringing her to our house; my sister stopped hating me as fiercely as usual for a few weeks.

Spring reminds me of Moni because it is a season when I feel at odds with myself. The warm weather and the smell of trees blooming, the rawness of the air, make me feel exhilarated and irritated at the same time. I feel as if I'm failing myself and the world in a way that I don't understand and can't rectify. I quiet down a bit when it rains in the spring. I sit at the window and listen to the sound of the water on the glass and am able to believe that I still have time to grow.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

Two nights ago I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned and watched the time slip by, one hour after another. At two o'clock in the morning I set up camp on the living room sofa with a comforter and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I read for a while. I turned off the lights for a while and stared at the ceiling, willing my eyes to shut and my mind to quiet down. Then I turned the light back on and read some more. I diligently got up in the morning at my usual time. I felt like my head was stuffed with cotton for the rest of the day. I couldn't concentrate on anything, and there was an emptiness in my stomach. It had been a long time since I'd felt this tired. For about a year I commuted from Anaheim to Los Angeles on the train for work and only back then did I feel this way. I used to doze off on the train at eight in the morning and wake up, startled and sick of myself, when the train arrived at Union Station.

I gave up on wakefulness at four thirty in the afternoon yesterday and slept for three hours. This is hard for me. I like schedules. I like my day to run a certain way. I hate to take naps, even when I'm dead tired. Naps make me feel lazy, and I avoid them at all costs. It's a contest of will between my conscious and unconscious mind. I don't like it when I have to give in to biological needs, food or sleep or whatever else. Yesterday evening I slept until seven thirty, had dinner and then went back to bed for a full night's sleep. How sweet it was, that sleep.

I'm finally back to normal. And I've decided, with this clear, rested mind that last night's sleep has returned to me so generously, that sleep is not my enemy. (I hate it, though, that I have to do so much of it, at least nine hours a night to feel well rested. It seems, to the workaholic part of my brain, such a waste of time.) Sleep brings dreams, after all. My dreams are often grotesque and frightening. But they fascinate me. I've always been a bit of a voyeur. I like to be a fly on the wall. I like to watch and listen when no one knows that I'm watching or listening. And what a goldmine dreams are for a voyeur -- the chance to get glimpses into what the mind does when the consciousness isn't there. Good night, then, and happy watching.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Grateful Friday

A glass of water. Rain and the gleaming puddles it leaves behind. Lakes and oceans and rivers. The invisible vital particles of moisture in the air. The sweat my skin breathes out every moment. The vast sheets of water deep under the ground, cold and dark, out of which trees drink. Every day, every moment they surround me and I take them for granted. I don't pay attention to the simple beauty and the immense luxury of water. I don't think about the thirst of my body except for the seconds required to satisfy it, and don't value enough the feeling of well-being that comes with satisfying it.

So, today, I'm thankful for water -- for the practical magic of evaporation and condensation that forms clouds in the sky and squeezes them onto the earth; for living in a place where water is not scarce (not yet); for having a faucet out of which water pours day after day without my having to work for it; for the fact that the water is safe to drink; for the filters that make it taste good (talk about luxury); for the primordial waters above which a spirit, the story tells, hovered long long ago, and from which all of life has come. Depending on your definition of "spirit" and "long, long ago" this can be a literal as well as a metaphorical truth.

There's that cliche but irresistible question, what animal would you like to be if you could be any animal(ah, reincarnation and its surprising temptations!); my answer is, a whale. It's because of the water, being able to swim in it, feed from it, feel enveloped by it, no matter how big you are, as if by a hand. It's because of the way light travels through it. It's because of how deep silence there can be.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thirst and Hunger

How to imagine that kind of thirst: no rain to speak of for three years, the earth parched, the air blue but burning, dust everywhere, animals dead from lack of water strewn on the ground with their mouths agape, dreaming of drinking still although it's too late. How to imagine that kind of hunger, so long and so deep that it kills. Nothing to put into your mouth, absolutely nothing. The only thing left to do: wait for the brown barren expanse of earth to swallow you.

There's a famine in the Horn of Africa. Children are dying from malnutrition. The animals whose milk fed them have died from dehydration. Cattle and camels collapse of thirst midway between watering holes that are further and further apart. Mothers have to carry their children to hospitals, and relief stations set up by international philanthropic organizations, to be fed. Too often the mothers are too late and the children, although they have eaten, die the next day.

I'm deeply troubled to hear about people dying of hunger. It breaks me; it makes me want to pack up cans and dry goods from my pantry and fly halfway across the world. But I'm troubled too by this impulsiveness, by the lack of thought that it involves. If I force myself to think rationally, I begin to understand that providing relief to regions affected by famine reinforces a system that cannot support itself. It seems wrong to put so much energy into short-term solutions rather than long-term ones. How can these people who are suffering so much be helped in a way that will make them self-sufficient in the long run?

Some time ago I worked at a food bank, here in California. On Friday afternoons, an affable, talkative volunteer who wore a silvery blonde wig gave me a ride to the food bank (I didn't have a car then). I spent a few hours in the back room packing canned meat and fruit and vegetables, and stale baked goods donated by grocery stores, into large paper bags. I heard stories about the people for whom I was doing all this: the homeless; the single mothers with minimum-wage jobs and too many children; elderly people with insufficient pensions and families too busy or too far away to take care of them; and once a father with seven children, whose wife had left him just the night before. I didn't question that my work at the food bank was good, part of the solution to a social problem.

I'm not so sure now. Sometimes the best thing to do when people are hungry is to feed them and not think too much about the consequences. Small acts of kindness ought to be enough. But I'm rankled by this worry: that there are times when the accumulation of small acts of kindness doesn't become a large act of kindness but something much less. I'm afraid that by fulfilling the small responsibility I feel for feeding someone now, I'm relinquishing a responsibility that is much bigger, which is to make it possible for the person to feed herself.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

I want to stop taking this step and that step. I want to stop moving -- towards success or failure, happiness or sorrow. No more hurry. No more impatience with what hasn't yet come to be, no more guilt about what has been.

Just stillness. The feel of the ground under my feet. Cold earth, warm earth. A breath that goes all the way down to my toes. I want to feel what it's like to live as if there were no time. As if this moment were everything, full and perfect, as inconceivably small and inconceivably large as the universe before time began.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


I am smitten with this book: Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit the Books They Love. For the past three days I've been reading feverishly through these taut passionate little essays and adding to my reading list, which is already too long to be completed in a lifetime, books like A Field Guide to Wildflowers, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the novels of Collette. And I'm only halfway through the book.

Even when I don't read it I can't part with it. I love to look at its beautiful cover, the brick and yellow and brown colors, the art reproduced below the title: a lithograph, as far as I can tell, of geometric patterns on the spines of books. And as I run my fingertips down the grainy surface of the paper I remember, with a clarity and detail that surprise me, the books that I read when I was in my early teens and that have marked me deeply despite the fact that they were not literary masterpieces. (I read some of those too, novels and poetry from the Romanian literary canon, and they were beyond me. But they made me want to write. I find that rather strange now -- that incomprehension planted that seed in me.)

There's Three Fat Men, by Yuri Olesha, a Soviet writer. The book has an underlying socialist moral, but the prose is not overwhelmed and stiffened by it. I read this book in one day, all its three hundred and some pages, lying in bed on a summer day, the blinds in the window shut to keep the room cool. I remember hearing the sounds of regular family life outside the door of my room, my parents walking by, speaking, dishes clattering when lunchtime then dinnertime came. I remember my mother sticking her head through a crack in the door and coaxing me to come out and stretch my legs. I wouldn't. I was hooked on the story, which seemed to me whimsical and serious and crazy and full of pathos. I know I will be obsessed for a few weeks with finding the book and rereading it. There are only used copies on Amazon. And of course they're in English. And of course they cannot be the same as the copy that I owned as a girl, hardcover, with glossy pages and vivid pictures that I can see right now in my mind's eye as if I had finished the book only yesterday.

Then there's Sans Famille, by Hector Malot. I read that book over and over. Tirelessly, I followed Remi, the homeless ten-year-old hero of the story, in his trecks throughout France in search for his family. That book had purple cardboard covers without a picture on the front -- it was a library book -- and yellowish pages stained by the fingerprints of the many, many children who had read it before me. It had a certain smell too stale and pulpy, that matched, strangely, the subject of the book, what it was like to live in poverty.

I'm determined to track down these books and reread them. At the same time, I feel a trace of doubt, of hesitation. I don't want to let my adult mind break the old magic of these books. But perhaps it won't. Perhaps the magic is strong enough to bewitch my older, critical, skeptical mind anew.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Grateful Friday

This week a friend spoke to me with malice -- misinterpreted something I had done; demanded explanations I didn't owe. I listened, astonished, and braced myself for my body to react in its usual way: my face to flush, my chest to cave in, my hands to turn cold, my stomach to start churning its own acids. I waited for the familiar feelings of despondency and helplessness to smother me like wet wool blankets.

But none of this happened. My heart thumped in my chest. My breath quickened. The impulse that rose in me at that moment was not to cower but to stand up for myself. To speak my mind. To argue that the accusations weren't truthful. This startled me and excited me. And it also, strangely, calmed me. I acknowledged that I might have made a mistake in dealing with this person. But I was also able to see the ways in which I had acted rightly.

This is completely new for me. And it is what I'm grateful for this week: calm and confidence, even if they were fleeting, in the middle of a crisis. I didn't suspect myself capable of that.

All these years that I have lived count for something, after all! I've learned a little bit as I've grown older. When I was a chubby, friendless, bookish girl, I always fantasized about being thirty-five years old. For me that was the ideal age. Your face shows, then, the signs of your having lived. Your mind does too, if you're lucky. And that's what I wanted more than anything: experience. Even now it's what I want the most. I don't think I've culled as much wisdom as I could have from my life experience so far. Still, a little bit counts. It has to.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


I buy Playboy magazine. I've wrung my hands over writing this down for several days now. I've wrestled with the question not of what buying the magazine says about me, to me, but what it says about me to other people. Would I get looks of horror if I talked about it? Complicit winks? Smirks of disgust?

I buy Playboy magazine because I love the Playboy Advisor. This is the section where the magazine answers readers' questions about all sorts of things. And I mean all sorts of things: how to age beef, if it's acceptable to wear sneakers with suits, what brand of home theater system to buy, or what grills, charcoal or gas, grill steaks better. And of course they ask about sex. All kinds of sex. I owe a good deal of my sexual education to the "Playboy Advisor." Its answers to readers's questions are well-reasoned, funny, and no-nonsense. The Advisor's level-headedness took me completely by surprise when I first read it. I was fascinated (and, let me be honest, put off more than once) by the crazy, weird things people do in the bedroom. And I was amazed at how non-judgmental and practical the advice these people got from the Advisor turned out to be.

It is in the Advisor that I read for the first time about male pregnancy. A man really exists in the world right now who is pregnant with a real baby. That just blew my mind. I thought this was something that medicine was considering experimenting with in the far future. But here it is. Male pregnancy is one issue I see no way to make a moral decision about. I can feel my way around cloning. But a pregnant man fills me with wonder and discomfort and also an unbreakable confused silence. I don't know how to think about it. I have no tools to decide if it's right or wrong.

I used to get very angry when I read about or heard men saying that they buy Playboy because it has interesting articles. But they do have a point. It's a small point, a minuscule one, barely visible to the naked eye. But it's there. The pictures of naked women still disturb me. I'm puzzled when I read that a lot of these women want to be in Playboy, that they consider it an accomplishment to be photographed and displayed like that. They may have mindlessly internalized the values of a culture that limits women's accomplishments to looking stereotypically beautiful and being sexual objects. But to me that explanation is not sufficient.

I wish there was a way to get the Advisor without the rest of Playboy. What I really wish is that there was a forum for talking about sex without shame and guilt, without the specter of embarrassed giggles crowding in one corner of the room, without the daunting weight of prejudices pressing down on the mind. For me, the Advisor is that place. In a way, that's sad. And in a way, it's not.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

Every morning I read a poem. Just one. It takes a lot of discipline to stop at one, to spend five minutes with a handful of words. I lunge ahead for the next poem but stop myself just in time. With a struggle I close the book and sit there looking out the window at the morning, feeling glad that I'm alive.

This week it is Mary Oliver who has got me feeling as if the top of my head is being taken off. Pure light on the page.

"...and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth..."

-- from "When Death Comes"

Monday, March 13, 2006

11, rue du Moulin

This weekend I finished putting together my first three-dimensional puzzle, a house with brick walls covered in ivy and flowerpots on the windowsills. It was such an experience working on it: a mixture of excitement and impatience and pain; and at the end, when I was done, this glorious embarrassing feeling of victory , as if I had accomplished something truly extraordinary. I yelped with joy. I raised my fist in the air shouting, "I did it, I did it!"

I'd spent hours and hours squinting at treacherously similar designs on the foam-backed pieces, concentrating so hard to figure out how the 3-D part of the puzzle worked that headaches started throbbing in the back of my head. And all the time this doubt kept plaguing me that I was wasting my time. This was child's play. This was for retired people with too much time on their hands. What was I doing hovering over these colored fragments of wall and windows and gardens, breathing shallowly and quickly as if confronted with a profound problem? Didn't I have better things to do? Re-read some Tolstoy? Volunteer in a soup kitchen? Scrub my bathroom? Bake some bread?

I don't know what it is about puzzles. I don't know what it is about play that the brain loves so. It seems so reckless, so impractical, to spend hours building a house out of bits of cardboard, that no one will live in, that I will eventually have to demolish after it has gathered a nice thick layer of dust on top of my bookcase.

I wondered if this house had ever been a real place. I wondered what kind of people had lived in it. So I googled "11, rue du Moulin." Well, there are dozens of 11, rue du Moulin. In Luxembourg, it's the address for a beekeepers' association: Union d'Apiculteurs du Grand Duche Luxembourg. In south-east France, it's the address for a swingers' club, and an entomological society, and a bed and breakfast, and a horse ranch. What a house! What a world!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Grateful Friday

It is with trepidation that I write this post; what I'm thankful for this week is my colon. Yes, I mean that sausagey, coiled, serpent-like organ that makes funny noises and collects and eliminates the waste my body produces.

I was looking for a picture of the large intestine to add to this post, a picture of the real thing, not those mild, inoffensive, euphemistic crayola-colored diagrams in anatomy books. I wanted to get down and dirty. I wanted to confront messy reality and make peace with it. Well, I'm not strong enough for that. The colon, friends, is an ugly thing. Especially when it's taken out of context, removed from the body and placed on a white table and cut open so that you can see inside it. I have seen a colon, however, inside a pig, when I was young and my family used to slaughter a pig every year before the winter holidays. I've seen it and, most importantly, I smelled it. Talk about messy reality.

But I'm grateful for mine with all its messy reality. I'm so happy it does its thing, makes its noises, purges me of what would make me sick if it stayed in my body. I'm grateful, although more than a little embarrassed. I've internalized without a murmur of protest all the societal taboos about feces and flatulence. I'm mortified when I hear a man (men do it more than women) break wind in yoga class, in poses that are meant to make you break wind, to eliminate the toxins from your body. But how do you go back to thinking that these are natural processes, that there's nothing to be ashamed of? How do you give up the myths about the body passed down to you as if they were genes, they are such an inextricable part of us?

I have seen only three reactions when the colon and its workings are mentioned in a conversation: a frantic change of subject, embarrassed silence, or slightly hysterical laughter. The thing is, though, that I can't imagine how else one could react. I've lost completely the habit of thinking of my body as an animal's body, as a marvel of engineering, as a thing of complicated beauty.

This post is a first effort to break that habit. So here is to you, my wonderful colon -- thank you for everything. Let's eat some whole wheat bread to that!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Vogue Fever

I bought the March issue of Vogue magazine because I love the haircut on the cover. I just threw the magazine in my cart at the grocery store and tryed not to think too much about what I was doing. I'd never bought Vogue before. I dislike fashion magazines. The wads and wads of clothing and perfume and jewerly ads depress me. I shiver when I see the skeletal models with shimmery skin lie about in not very subtle sexual poses. But I figured that a rule -- my promise to myself not to spend money on fashion mags -- is not a very good rule if it doesn't get broken at least one. (And at most once, I'm hoping very hard).

So here I am, with my 600-page thick Vogue, my wrists aching a bit from flipping through it. I'm as horrified as ever by the ads but pleasantly shocked (surprised is too mild a word) by some articles I found tucked all the way at the back of the issue. A review of a recent biography of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova! A piece on gourmet beans! Another on bread and fish! A review of the biography of the Russian poet...! (I can't get over that one.) Sadly, these didn't compensate for the overload of images of skinny women in obscenely expensive clothing. I feel like I've had a sugar overdose. I need to give my brain healthy food for a few weeks to return to normal. The poetry of Mary Oliver, a volume of which I just bought. The sight of my dwarf citrus finally blooming, the first flower shyly opened, the petal tips curling apart.

The most scary thing inside that glossy paper behemoth is head shots of four famous models who look no more than thirteen (thirteen!!) years old. The picture caption quips about how much these girl learn about make-up while they're being prepped to go onto the runaway. They're veritable experts on blush and lipstick and whatever other esoteric powders and pigments one uses to cover up one's face! This sent a chill down my spine. These girls don't even look like they've gotten their periods. These girls should be still playing with dolls and reading Nancy Drew. These girls should bake cookies with their mothers.

So, I have all the time in the world now to stare at Natalie Portman and her "gamine" crop and torture myself about whether or not I should cut my hair that short too. I love short hair. I'm scared of short hair. Should I, or shouldn't I... Oh, get over it, GW. Don't let Vogue rub quite so thickly on you.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ramblings, in Love Minor

Kids are screaming outside my window. Toys crash against patio fences. A little boy screeches away a commentary on his own, solitary hockey game. A little girl -- I peek from behind the curtains, she has blond curly hair and is dressed in a pink princess outfit -- bursts into high-pitched laughter. I remember, as I sit at my desk trying to collect myself and to find a bit of silence inside me so that I can think, about two pieces of news I heard yesterday on the radio. One about a woman in England who's suing for the right to implant in her womb embryos she has made with a ex-fiance who doesn't want to be a father any more. The other about stray dogs, what to do about their numbers, about the irresponsible owners who have abandoned them.

These two disconnected thoughts have been battering against the insides of my head. They troubled me; I didn't know what to make of them. But it occurs to me now -- the children's voices have died down; I can hear the crows in the eucalyptus trees, their cawing strangely calming -- that what I've been struggling with without really knowing it is the fate of the lives that we choose to protect and to be responsible for, for a time, and then are at a loss what to do with. Dogs, whom so many people love, but leave when this love become inconvenient. And children -- so many people, like that woman in England, fight with such fierce love to bring them into the world, to make a thing, a person that belongs to them in a way that nothing else can. And so many people end up abandoning their children, not in a physical way necessarily, not in any visible, obvious way. But there's a retreat of understanding, of compassion because it turns out that this person they have made is complicated, hard to deal with, sometimes impossible to understand.

I know parents who aren't like that. They are not the ones I'm talking about.

What to do with something that you've made but now has a life of its own and doesn't need you any more? Alice Munro digs deep into this question in one of her recent short stories, "Silence." Juliet, the story's main character, spends years waiting for a sign of life from her daughter, Penelope, who has left one summer for a spiritual retreat and hasn't returned. Penelope doesn't even send letters. After many years of waiting Juliet finds out by accident that her daughter is married to a doctor in a small town in Northern Canada and has five children. She has the impulse to go visit the small town, to wander around its stores to catch a glimpse of Penelope. But she decides not to. She makes an attempt at the end of the story to come to terms with Penelope's breaking all ties with her, and it's heartbreaking.

"My daughter went away without telling me good-bye and in fact she probably did not know then that she was going. She didn't not know it was for good. Then gradually, I believe, it dawned on her how much she wanted to stay away. It is just a way that she has found to manage her life.

"It's maybe the explaining to me that she can't face. Or has not time for, really. You know, we always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons. And I could tell you plenty about what I've done wrong. But I think the reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature. Yes. Some fineness and strictness and purity, some rock-hard honesty in her. My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person. Couldn't those words mean simply what they say? Penelope does not have a use for me.

"Maybe she can't stand me. It's possible."

It feels good to ramble (oh, the etymology of "ramble" goes back to a Dutch word that refers to animals wandering about in heat!) about these half-formed ideas that pester me for days and days, to try to tease out some rhyme and reason out of them. I never know what I will find when I follow their feeble, frayed threads. And more often than not I end up glad that I did follow it, and glad that I have this head on my shoulder. It's good to think. It's very good. It's like a nice, long, sweaty yoga class for the brain.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Ocean, Sunday, Sister

A black bird with yellow eyes hopped towards my foot, screeching like a toy shaken too hard. It pecked at a bit of pastry on the ground. A white terrier lunged at it from somewhere and barked gleefully. Children screamed; a very young baby with his head lolling yelped as his brother grabbed his little fat hand and shook it. In the distance, past the clamor of people's voices, past the roar of the highway, the ocean glimmered, calm and endless and blue.

"They do have soy lattes," my sister said, carrying two paper cups of coffee to the table I'd claimed and guarded while she stood in line. She sat down and clipped a laminated order number in the metal stand on the table. "So," she said, "tell me what's new." My little sister, not little any more, sat across from me dressed in a smart white jacket, her short curly hair framing her face. She looked at me sharply, smiling, with her almond-shaped and beautifully made-up eyes.

I still have a hard time taking in the fact that we are both adults, that finally, even though we are so different, we get along, can have a peaceful, deep, funny conversation on a Sunday morning over brunch. We butted heads on everything when we were growing up. I remember wanting desperately to hit her when she annoyed me. I remember being sad that she didn't like me, that she despised my bookishness, my lack of friends, my priggishness. I remember wondering, helplessly, how two people, two girls who share so much of their genes and have grown in the same household, can have so few things in common.

I appreciate now the many ways in which she is different from me. I'm relieved to see how fiercely she stands up for herself, how she doesn't take any crap from anyone, calls people's bluff, tells it like it is. I am not in the least afraid for her. I know then when life hurts her she won't slink into a corner to lick her wounds, like I do, but will get up off the ground and fight back to the death. I'm so happy that seh's successful, that she has accomplished things that I haven't been able to. When we were growing up I was the star of the family because I was obedient and good in school; she was a rebel. Now she is the star of the family: she's in graduate school, getting an MBA, and has an extremely well-paying job. From the sidelines I watch her bask in the glow of my parents' approval and of my pride in her success. And I am honestly and deeply happy for her.

We can talk about everything now without getting exasperated at each other. I've grown comfortable to tell her about my writing; we rant about our parents; she tells me about her fear of standing still, of being alone with herself. We connect; and I feel that the love we owe each other because we are sisters is turning slowly into love that we offer each other freely, because we each finally understand who the other is, how she can change and how she cannot, and can love what is there rather than what we wish was there. Oh, it isn't an easy thing. She still rolls her eyes at my awkward attempts to avoid talking about sex; I still balk at how confrontational she can be. But more often than not we end up having a good laugh together at our idiosyncrasies. After my husband, only my sister can make me burst out into a great belly laugh.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Grateful Friday

I saw a post on this theme on Michelle Fry's blog last week and knew immediately that I had to do it too. I am a pessimist by nature and tend to focus on the negative aspects of things. Sometimes I dismiss what goes right in my life, think of it as a fluke, and embrace the bad stuff as proper punishment for not being better than I am. I know how terribly misguided that is, and I hope that by making an attempt to be grateful every Friday I will slowly reorient my thinking and learn to value all the wonderful stuff that I now take for granted.

Today I'm grateful for being plain-looking. I've spent years agonizing about my weight (I've always been a size 12-14), about my hair (I don't think I've had a really good hair day as an adult), about the fact that I have an underbite, about the bumps on the skin of my upper arms, about my large thighs. I've spent so much time feeling sorry for myself because I'm not pretty, because nature decided not to pass on to me the perfect, beautiful bone structure of my mother's face, her dark curly hair, her smooth skin.

Well, no more. I'm beginning to see advantages to not being pretty. I don't stand out; I'm able to walk down the street, to be in a group of people, without drawing attention. I can observe others in peace from behind a face that is perfectly average, almost homely. I don't have to fear growing old; I have no good looks whose loss to mourn. No one will look at me and be stuck on the outside of a beautiful surface. When someone talks to me she will not be distracted by what she sees and will be all the better able to listen to what I have to say, to get a glimpse of who I am on the inside.

Beautiful women frighten me a little, I have to admit. When I showed up for my first facial at a beauty salon, I had to wait for about fifteen minutes before the beautician came out to greet me. I was annoyed and was going to make a comment about her being late. But she turned out to be this gorgeous woman with the most amazing blue eyes I had ever seen and skin like marble. I couldn't help smiling. I cringed when I heard myself say, "Oh, no problem," when she apologized for being late. I felt so ashamed of myself but I was simply spellbound by her beauty. I cannot, in all honesty, be sorry that I will never have that effect on people. I'm happy to be plain; I'm happy to know that when people like me it's because they have seen past this somewhat awkwardly put together flesh and bones.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Fashion as Art

I've always thought fashion frivolous. This is partly because I hate shopping for clothes. I hate the sea of shirts and skirts and dresses and pants that meets me every time I enter a department store. The sales people with their exhausted faces and fake smiles depress me. I hate the dressing rooms with their stained carpet and the piles of tried-on clothes hanging over the chipped louvred doors. (You can tell I don't shop at Neiman Marcus). The thought that girls and women in some thirld-world country have slaved in badly ventilated buildings without restroom breaks to make all this stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. And it's ugly stuff, too: bland colors, seams with loose threads, and sized that never fit properly. Beautiful clothes? I never believed such a thing existed outside carefully engineered magazine ads. And if they existed, they cost more money than mere mortals could afford.

I've had a change of heart this past week, small but startling. I was at the library and on a whim pulled off the shelf a book on Claire McCardell, a fashion designer who worked in the thirties, forties and fifties. I cracked the book open, my finger slipping on the glossy pages. And there it was, a dress more beautiful than I had ever seen, a beauty that moved me more deeply than I had ever been moved by pieces of fabric sewn together. There were the colors, blue and turquoise, the sheen and grain of the cotton fabric, the lines of the cut, crisp and sensuous. It surprises me even now that I can talk about the dress like this, that I'm describing clothes as if they were art.

That shock hasn't worn off yet. I found that vintage McCardell dresses are sold online for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Ironic, considering that McCardell prided herself on creating affordable designs. I don't know, though, at what price that affordability came; I haven't been able to find out where her dresses were manufactured. I still haven't tired of looking at pictures of her clothes; I stare and stare at them with a glazed expression on my face, and feel very happy. Here are a few that I was able to find on Google.