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, June 29, 2006

Living My Reading

Before my trip to Portland I read the Penguin Lives biography of Charles Dickens, by Jane Smiley. It's a fascinating book about a fascinating man. Of the strangely wonderful qualities of Dickens's character, the one that puzzles me the most is his enormous energy for writing. Every month during the years when he published his serialized novels he wrote thousands of words a day, and not any kind of words, not rough drafts, but rich and bubbling with life. Serendipitously, the Portland Central Library has an exhibit that contains the real, flesh-and-blood (so to speak), installments (nineteen, total) of "David Copperfield." I noticed them by accident on the third floor of the library as I paused for breath after climbing the stairs. Seeing the thin blue notebooks with the title inside a wreath-like border printed in black ink made my day. What curious ways real life and books have of intersecting.

I had another moment like this when I went to a Planetarium show at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I felt like I had stepped, as a invisible marginal character, into Alice Munro's story "The Moons of Jupiter." Even the story's spoiled kids squirming in their seats and asking for snacks were there. I had a profound moment of fear during the show. The Milky Way galaxy appeared above my head, with a tiny arrow pointing towards its edge where our solar system is; then the galaxy grew larger and larger on the screen and rushed at me in all its awful glory before fading to make room for the next display. I felt so crushable, so small, less than a speck on the face of all that exists. That was a moment when I wished I believed in God. Faith would have been a comfort, a way to explain me sitting there in a dark theater feeling terrified by the infinity of space.

And now a contrast, calm and comfort that don't require the divine. I spent hours at the Classical Chinese Garden today; I was so happy inside that I never wanted to leave. Nooks and crannies with stones and bonsai trees; the water lilies; the reflection of pavilion roofs in the pond; the carved gingko wood screens; the waterfall -- I couldn't get enough of them. But no more words; here's a picture.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I felt like Alice falling through the rabbit hole, except the walls of my rabbit hole were packed with books. I was so bewildered that I couldn’t stop to look at anything in particular; all I could manage was to move forward through the avalanche of titles on book spines, through the smell of old and new paper, the soft rumble of human voices and the shuffle of lingering footsteps. There I was, inside Powell’s City of Books. My eyes misted over with tears. It’s silly, I know; it’s melodramatic, I know. But I couldn’t help it. I wandered, my mouth open, through the Orange, and the Rose, and the Coffee, and the Gold and the Blue Rooms. At the coffee shop I bought a very peppery soy chai that I was too impatient to drink. I explored the bookstore more attentively after this and found A Tour of Rumanian, Bulgarian and Balkan Cuisine that has recipes for dishes my grandmother still makes. I stumbled upon a book of poems by Hayden Carruth and was won over instantly. And then I had to leave. I simply had to. I couldn’t take it any more. My heart and my head were ready to burst. I thought, as I went out the door, that if heaven exists – and Powell’s is my version of heaven – I can’t handle all its marvels. My heart is too small for such wonders.

I spent the morning at the Japanese Garden in Washington Park. In the photo is one of my favorite things I saw there: a carving of a spirit who protects travelers, done in granite and dating from 1887. It is a small slab set upright in the earth, to the side of a footpath under a lily-of-the-valley shrub. I was very moved by the gentle face of this spirit; and I liked too that you could miss it so easily, that without great attention you could pass by it as if it weren’t there. Many good things in this world are like that; you have to search them out and to be present fully in the moment to see them. All the green in the garden made me so happy. I was very uncomfortable because of the heat; sweat drenched my whole body even when I stood still, but all the shades of green –- dark, or yellowish, or silvery, or speckled with white or maroon, variations on the same theme -- were very soothing. I remember this most strongly from the guided tour: the principle of asymmetry in a Japanese garden. I don’t think of asymmetry as beautiful. But the uneven shrubs, the pagoda with one leg shorter than the other, the shorter one anchored on earth and the other in water to suggest their interdependence, are truly beautiful.

For dinner, I knew I shouldn’t have, but I was so drunk on their smell and so hungry and thirsty (it hit one hundred and two degrees yesterday, with high humidity) that I ate strawberries unwashed straight from their green plastic container on my walk back to the hotel from Whole Foods Market. I had my dinner in a small Chinese take-out container: tofu and shiitake salad, with Napa cabbage and roasted red peppers. I experienced a small ecstasy eating it in my room in front of the window, watching the windows of the building across the street reddened by the setting sun, my feet and the small of my back aching from my day of walking. The salad was unbelievably delicious, crisp and refreshing and lightly sweet. I’m surprised by how well I can eat here; for lunch I had a salad from a little bakery at the corner of Alder and Broadway, baby greens with currants and roasted pistachios and grapes – hold the gorgonzola cheese – with curry dressing and a honey-wheat roll. What simple yet thorough happiness can good healthy food give! I’m overwhelmed by all these good things and I try very hard to move slowly enough so that they can stick to me, so that I can remember them vividly years from now. But I want to know and hear and see and feel more and more and more. I’ve always been a glutton for this sort of thing.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Books and Silence in Portland

I am writing this from my room on the eighth floor of the Benson Hotel in Portland. I have to see this sentence in black on white quite to believe it. This is my first day -- I should say evening -- of summer vacation, and of the first trip I'm taking by myself as an adult. I wanted to have an adventure that's entirely my own. I haven't been away from Husband for more than a night in five years, and I was curious and excited and more than a little nervous to find out what it would be like to be on my own again. To have no one to turn to when I saw or heard or thought of something exciting, but to experience it entirely by myself, in silence (or with the quietest yelp of joy that I can manage), to make it count even though no one else is there to share it with me.

I notice most of all the silence tonight. The street outside my hotel window is quieter than I expected. There's no sound of life in the hotel hallway. I haven't turned the televsion on. I have this ambition not to watch any television this week, but I'm not sure I'll be able to do it; Husband and I have a tradition of watching The Cosby Show at night when we're on vacation, and it seems like a tradition worth holding up. So there's the occasional honking from the street, a very muted hum of traffic, the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard and nothing else. How strange this seems, even though silence is familiar to me. But it's this room, a stranger's room, though I've performed the necessary ritual of placing the books I've brought with me (I had trouble limiting myself only to three) on the nightstand in order to claim it as my own.

I had a vegan caesar salad for dinner, bought from a restaurant called The Blossoming Lotus, to which I predict I'll go more than once (or twice, or thrice) this week. I walked to this place in a 98 degree heat, on almost desserted streets. It surprised me how many shops were closed on a Sunday night. Powell's City of Books wasn't closed, but I didn't dare go inside yet. I stood on the sidewalk and gazed at the unassuming building and the shelves and shelves of books inside. That's going to be my first stop tomorrow. It is so comforting to think of all those thousands and thousands of books waiting quietly for me to leaf through them; it makes me feel less of a stranger here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Power Breakfast

On Monday morning a woman found a bear eating oatmeal in her kitchen. He had sneaked into the kitchen through a patio door left ajar. I heard this news on public radio yesterday. The first image that flashed through my mind was of a bear sitting at the kitchen table spooning up porridge from a cereal bowl, just like in a children's story. But of course what really must have happened was that the bear had gotten hold of one of those red and blue Quaker tubs of instant oats, torn the plastic lid off and poured the raw grains into his mouth, making a big mess on the floor.

The woman called the police. Several officers arrived but couldn't budge the bear. (I wonder how they tried to get him out. Surely they didn't just push him from behind as if he were a stalled car. Did they shout at him? Did they sweet-talk him? Did they have a hard time not bursting into laughter at the absurdity of the situation?) So they waited. I can picture the officers with their hands on their holsters, the woman still in her bathrobe watching from behind them, the bear eating away, his huge body peaceful and menacing at the same time. When he tucked away enough oats and was satisfied, he left all by himself.

I love this story. I love the fact that the woman and the officers had to wait for the bear to go away on his own. We are so used to moving fast and destroying any obstacles in our path, especially if these obstacles are put up by nature. We cut down forests, we drill for oil without thinking twice about the animal and plant life we decimate. We hunt although we don't need the meat for survival. We have invented so many tools for destruction. I remember reading that a man shot a moose that appeared in front of him on a forest path when he was hiking. We're forced very seldom these days to confront nature by ourselves, to stop and make way for and respect creatures that are bigger, evolutionarily older, and more beatiful than ourselves.

Of course it's easy for me to be philosophical from a distance. What if that bear had shown up in my kitchen? I wouldn't have been able to think of anything except how that bear could kill me with a few slaps of its paws. Nature is as cruel a place as it is beautiful. But I don't remember that very often. And I don't remember that nature has as little -- though I could just as well say, as much -- concern for me as it has for flower or a bear cub or a fungus. I forget how small I am in the grand scheme of things, big brain and self-awareness and all. It takes a bear eating oatmeal to remind me.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Yesterday at eleven twenty-three in the morning my little nephew was born. He weighs a little over seven pounds and is twenty inches long. I took out my ruler and spread my hands twenty inches wide. I took out a five-pound bag of flour from my pantry and held it for a bit. It seemed very light, too light to be just a little below the weight of a newborn, of a whole human being. My brother- and sister-in-law will be taking the baby home from the hospital later today. They'll carry that tiny creature in their arms and rock him and look at him as he sleeps in his crib, knowing every moment that they are completely and forever responsible for him.

Despite baby pictures, despite the same handful of stories about my childhood that my mother never tires of telling, it's hard for me to believe that I was as tiny one September day many years ago as my little nephew is now. It's hard for me to believe that my parents looked at me with fear and awe and a kind of love that my mother insists you can know nothing about until you experience it firsthand. I looked very attentively at my father's face yesterday as we were having lunch together to celebrate Father's Day, and tried to puzzle out what he was feeling, what he thought about, when he looked at my sister and me, if he was happy or disappointed or maybe felt a little removed from us -- forced, by the fact that we've grown up and left home, to think of himself as a man alone again, with responsibilities only towards himself.

I couldn't read his face; I was never really able to. But I realized today as I thought about what my father meant to me and about the difficulties I have in relating to him now that I'm an adult and married, that what I want more than anything is to thank him. I don't want to dwell on the ways we've hurt each other. I just want to say: thank you for all you've done. If he had done nothing else except nurture my love of reading it would have been enough. And he's done so much more than that. I wasn't fully aware of how much because to him silence, and letting what he does speak for him, is very important. For me, on the other hand, words are as important as deeds. That is where a lot of our misunderstandings sprang from: his silences spoke to me in a very different way than he intended.

Except for our passion for books, we are very unlike one another. But I feel very lucky that I have learned, much more than I have suffered, from our conflicts. I must give my father credit for the things I learned; he has always, always made a serious, earnest effort to give me mental and spiritual space to grow up in. Perhaps he judged me, but he did it silently. I can see what a great gift to me this silence has been. It has pained me many times, but the pain was of the growing, becoming a better person kind.

Friday, June 16, 2006


In my family we gather around our quarrels as around a hearth. We feel a sense of intimacy and connectedness when we sit in a circle talking at each other's burning faces and rubbing our hands together close to the heat of the words.

It started when we moved to America. It is impossible to imagine the sense of isolation you feel when you move to a foreign country. A lifetime of relationships and knowledge about how things work is wiped away in the course of twenty-four hours. Everything is different in the new country: the weather, grocery stores, applying for a job, having the electricity turned on where you live. But the most shocking -- and exhilarating -- thing of all is that the members of the family who speak the language of the foreign country acquire overnight the status of adults even though they may still be children or teenagers. For the first time they know something their parents don't know, and the parents acknowledge that. It is what you always dream of as a child: to be taken seriously, to be treated as your parents' equal.

My sister and I became adults in that sense as soon as my family moved here. We were the ones who phoned the gas and power company to open accounts; we translated for our parents at the DMV office and tried to puzzle out apartment rental contracts; we filled out application forms for our parents to get into ESL classes and helped them with their homework. We were also dragged into our parents' arguments -- about money, the difficulty of getting jobs, the car that we had and was always on the verge of breaking down, and about the reasons we moved to America in the first place. My mother blamed my father for being greedy for dollars; my father said that my mother never cared about making progress. My sister ate ice cream sullenly straight from the carton. And I tried, arrogant fool, to decide who was right and who wrong.

The first apartment we rented in America had a balcony whose floor my mom covered with rectangular carpet samples bought from Home Depot for a quarter or so each. We sat out there, my parents on chairs (my mom smoking, my dad trying to quit) and my sister and I on the floor. We argued and argued, and shouted, and said things we shouldn't have, and wept, and then scurried off to some corner to lick our wounds.

I think about those times now because my family is going through another crisis and again we have slipped into the habit of discussing to death what should be done. We talk and talk although we have no reason to believe that we can understand or change one another. We talk not in order to find out what the others really think, but to convince them that what I -- whoever that "I" may be at any given moment -- think is right. And we do this with the best of intentions. We sincerely want the others to be happy; we want to make them happy. None of us is able to accept that we have different ideas of what it means and what it takes to be happy. None of us wants to face up to the truth that we can't make anyone happy. It comforts us to believe that we can. It comforts us to keep that belief alive by arguing with each other, because when you argue so passionately you can delude yourself into thinking that your passion is love and that it can move another person to change even against that person's will.

I try very hard to summon up the courage to break this cycle, to tell my parents that I don't want to talk about our problems any more. That I don't believe they are ours, collectively. That I don't want to measure my love for them and theirs for me by how freely and vehemently we can discuss the difficulties they have with their marriage, or the careers my sister and I should or should not choose. For a while, until we figure out on what other terms connection and intimacy is possible, we will be left with nothing, with silence. That scares me no end. But it also gives me hope.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Boys and Girls, Men and Women

This year I will become an aunt. Any day now my sister-in-law is supposed to give birth. A few days ago I received news from Romania that my best friend's sister has just had a baby girl. My neighbor is pregnant. And another friend who lives in Oregon is due to have a baby in October. I know that every day hundreds of babies are born. But there have never been so many that I was aware of, or connected to. It gives me the feeling some women get when they watch all their best friends get married without getting married themselves. You watch a certain kind of life pass by you, and though you've made a conscious choice not to live it, you feel a little bit of sadness, a slight sense of loss. I don't want to have children. Husband and I made this decision together, rationally. And yet the biological instinct is so deep and so powerful that there are times when I want to chuck rationality out the window and just hold a baby, my own baby, in my arms.

I wouldn't make a good mother. I would be too emotional, I would worry too much about trivial things, I would have a very hard time giving my child enough space to grow, the freedom to make his own mistakes. And I'm still so confused about so many things, there are still so many questions about the world that I can't figure out the answers to, that I don't feel qualified to be responsible for another person, to guide him through the first part of his life. What scares me the most about having children is not the dirty diapers and the sleepless nights, but how to teach another human being what's right and wrong, how to watch another human being figure out how to be happy and live a meaningful life and fall down and hurt himself in the process. What if I have a child who happens not to like books and readings? Or who doesn't want to go to college? How will I be able to love him without stifling him -- generously enough to support him whatever choices he makes?

I worry a little bit about the baby my Oregon friend is going to have in October. I can't imagine her being a mother, a good mother. She's not easy to get along with. She's a free spirit but moody, self-centered, stubborn. Or used to be like that. She may have changed. But if she hasn't, it troubles me that she's having a baby; I doubt that she's prepared for it. I was relieved when I heard that the baby is a boy. I caught myself thinking that a boy can withstand a not-so-good mother much better than a girl. (I remember reading an article that argued that boys who begin their sexual lives too early are not as traumatized by it as girls are, and being horrified that the writer had made such a sexist distinction.) I wonder sometimes how my parents' children would have turned out if they had been boys instead of being me and my sister.

I stare at babies in car seats and strollers, I watch young children splashing around at the pool and chasing each other in the park with beaming earnest pink faces. Their joy and freshness is irresistible. I try to remind myself that all of them grow up in the end and become adults who have to figure out that impossible question about the meaning of life. And I can't help being sad for them.

Friday, June 09, 2006


I'm under the spell of Alice Munro again. I've just finished reading another of her short story collections, "The Love of a Good Woman." She writes things like this: "And whatever troubled him and showed in his face might have been just the same old trouble--the problem of occupying space in the world and having a name that people could call you by, being somebody they thought they could know." Or like this: "For everybody, though, the same thing. Evil grabs us when we are sleeping; pain and disintegration lie in wait. Animal horrors, all worse than you can imagine beforehand." And I stop, my mouth open with wonder, my mind full of these words strung one after another in smooth, balanced sentences that are not only beautiful in the simplest, homiest way, but also true.

How can she write sentences like that? How can she know as many things and as profoundly as is required to write such sentences? I think of my own sentences, which to me sound belabored and empty, unsure and convoluted. I feel sorry for myself -- for my inability to concentrate deeply, for my ignorance about people and the world, for my below average vocabulary, for my lack of intuition about the texture of language, my native as much as my adopted one. And I ask myself why, then, do I write? I've seen this question asked elsewhere. Why keep up this blog? Why go on writing diaries, journals, stories? Why even jot down a note? (I spend an inordinate amount of time writing notes. I tell myself that since I've got only two sentences to put down I might as well make them perfect. So I write drafts of two-sentence-long notes.) People answer that they cannot help writing. Madness answered, cryptically and beautifully, that she writes because she is tired of standing in a crowded place trying to get people to notice her. I've been wondering what my own answer is. For a long time I've tried to articulate to myself why I write.

And I don't know why. I heard Billy Collins read his poem "The Trouble With Poetry" on the radio the other day. There's a line in there about how reading poetry makes him want to write poetry. I feel the same way with stories. Reading Alice Munro makes me desperate to write my own stories. They are pitiful. They are pallid reflections of what I want them to be. But they satisfy a very obscure though profound need. Virginia Woolf said that the problem with being an avid reader is that it often makes you want to be a writer. The love of other people's books deludes you into thinking you can write books of your own. That's my problem. That's the best way I can explain why I write. It's not an explanation that satisfies me. An explanation that would satisfy me would make it possible for me to give up writing. Because all this writing is, I think, a sort of addiction. It's not an ordinary kind of addiction, because it can lead to good things, to wonderful books being written. But it can take you so deeply into yourself that you cannot find your way back up to the surface. That's what it does to me, anyway. It can make me feel burningly ashamed of innocuous spelling mistakes, or of an incomplete sentence in a two-line note I leave on the kitchen table. How many times a day do I have to remind myself that there are more important things in life than grammar, than perfect sentences? But a moment after I remind myself I forget again. And I go to a story by Alice Munro to get another fix.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday

This month's self-portrait theme baffles me. I've spent hours trying to think of myself in some kind of relationship to popular culture, but I couldn't come up with anything. I realized that I don't even know for sure what popular culture is. Sure, I know the dictionary definition: commercial culture based on popular taste. Sure, I can give a couple of examples, like Campbell's tomato soup and American Idol, and hope that I'm not too far off the mark. But are Barbie dolls popular culture? How about dental floss? Baseball? What exactly qualifies, when in America, in the Western world in general, everything is so profoundly commercial, and what the greatest number of people agree to like and to buy at any given time is what rules?

I told Husband that I was stumped. He thought for a moment then said, in a brisk but resigned tone, "Well, one thing's for sure, Shakespeare isn't pop culture, nor Jane Austen, nor most of the things that you're interested in." I thought, feeling sorry for myself, "Yeah, I guess that's right." But then why not embrace it? Why not go full out and say, "All right, here I am, the antithesis of popular culture. I'm the counterexample. I'm the dork. I'm the one who has to be crossed out with a big thick red line and pointed to and told, you are everything but.

I added my picture in the collage above because this is a self-portrait after all. In truth, I don't deserve to be next to all those other beautiful things: the first page of the Moonlight Sonata, an illuminated manuscript, portraits of Shakespeare and Austen and Proust and Rachmaninof (whose Prelude in C-sharp minor I've been listening to), an Orthodox Christian icon, a Pollock painting, an Escher print. These are the things I like. This is what I'd spend my money on if I had enough money to buy them. This is my own personal pop culture. It used to be other people's too, hundreds of years ago (I'm thinking of Shakespeare). So I'm not in quite such a rarified company after all.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Catalina Island

I'd never been on an island before. We took the boat at noon on a brighty sunny day, and after ten minutes of sailing we were in the middle of a thick fog. I couldn't see land ahead or behind, just beautiful dark restless water. I stood on the deck in the wind, the moisture in the fog condensing on my bare arms and on my glasses. What a feeling it was, the swaying of the ocean and that gloom and that air hitting my face and smelling of salt. There is happiness like this, so simple, so physical, but that I feel I could never tire of. Inside the boat I felt seasick and read Alice Munro and took deep breaths to quell my nausea.

There's a botanical garden on the island, with a tower you climb up to on a spiral staircase and from which you can see the ocean. They have a century plant in the garden, which flowers once every hundred years and about which I had read in a story by Catherine Mansfield. There are ironwood trees whose wood is so dense that it sinks in water. There's a dragon-tree whose swollen limbs make me think of my aunt's arms; this aunt is a fierce woman, overweight but with white and hard flesh on her bones, like stone.

It baffles me, but my parents are getting along again. In part I'm resentful about this, because I know this is the beginning of another cycle of love and anger, tenderness and violence. I marvel at the power of habit, the habit of being someone's partner for thirty years, and the fear that takes hold when you consider breaking away. I took this picture of them in the tower on the island and it was an accident of light, it was a picture I thought I would have to get rid of because I couldn't see their faces. But it suddenly seems fitting. I want them so much to step out into that light outside, that beautiful light. I want so much for them to have the courage to be happy -- apart or together it doesn't matter.