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, September 28, 2006

Da Capo

Today my father said to me on the phone, "Maybe we shouldn't have come to America. Maybe you would have been successful if we had stayed in Romania." I couldn't speak for a few seconds; I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I've known for a while now that my father thinks me a failure because I haven't proven to the world how smart I am and how much money I can make. Why, then, did it hit me so hard? This is not the first time I've heard words to this effect, nor the second, nor the third. Why can't I take this like a man?

In a way, I did. I kept quiet. My father changed the subject and I followed him there in a light, matter-of-fact voice. After I hung up the phone I ate lunch and went back to writing. I scrubbed the stove and picked up the mail. Then I sat down for a moment with nothing to do and my eyes filled with tears. Damn, I said to myself, damn, damn, damn.

My failure is not simply a personal failure. Through me my father and my mother have also failed; they gave up so much to come to America, a lifetime of work and friendships, a beautiful house and a successful business, and I haven't paid them back for all these sacrifices. I believe that I owe them a lot, and I can see now that I'm not willing to pay it back. I'm not willing to go to law school like my father wants, and to have children like my mother wants, to live my life the way the both of them want me to live it. It's not that I'm not able; I'm not willing. This crushes me. But not as much as giving myself up to their ideas of who I am would crush me. I'm just beginning to understand that.

When we came to America I was convinced that I would become what my parents wanted me to become; I believed that I was smart enough and hardworking enough to do it and convinced that what we wanted was the same. I didn't expect to lose this conviction. I didn't expect to be disillusioned about America and what it did to you and for you. I didn't expect that the one thing I was going to learn here was that I counted as an individual and that walking a path by myself, even if my parents disagreed with that path, was dangerous but worthwhile.

There's the house with picket fence and two cars in the garage part of the American dream. But there's another part to that dream and it has to do with how many times you can reinvent yourself. This is a country where you can fail and start over again, where the idea of beginning all over no matter what your age or your past, is more acceptable than in any other place I know of. This is a country where optimism isn't mocked, even cock-eyed optimism. There's greed and corruption and arrogance, but also this mad, mad belief in renewing yourself. And this comforts me.

So if I fail, not only on my parents' terms but also on my own, I can start over. I can go back to school at fifty to study physics, learn Chinese at sixty and how to fly a plane at seventy. I have many gripes with this country, but I'm compelled to admire that, at least in principle, you're not too old to do anything here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Accidental Racist

I picked up All Aunt Hagar's Children, the new collection of stories by Edward P. Jones (the writer who became famous when he published The Known World), at the bookstore and after reading a few sentences I was hooked. I bought the book and went home and plunged into it right away. I'm still reading it and being dazzled and disturbed and altogether changed by the experience of being inside the world built up with such attention and such passion by each of these stories. I recommended this book to many people, and to one group I said, "What I love most about this book is that I'm learning so much about black people; the stories are about such a broad range of characters, from criminals to people who went to college." It occurred to me only some hours later, when it was too late to apologize, that what I had said sounded racist. Why did I start my list of the book's characters with "criminals"? (Well, in my defense, the story that I'd just finished reading was about a criminal. But why did that stick so much more vividly in my head than any of the other chracters?) Why had I said "people who go to college" instead of doctors and lawyers and teachers, which is what I had meant to say?

This mistake has been eating at me for quite a few days now. I don't know what else to do except write about it and try to make sense of the reasons why I said what I did. I read a few months ago about unconscious racism, about the connections we make between black and bad, and white and good without being aware of it, without meaning harm but doing harm nevertheless, just because we grow up in a particular social class and racial group. Out of ignorance, basically. I value Jones's book because it jolts me out of this unconscious stereotyping. I value it because it exposes myself to myself. I feel miserable that I made such a gaffe in praising it, but my gaffe is proof of how much I need to read and re-read the book, how much I need to seek out experience that will help me unlearn the negative things I've learned about race.

I was innocent once. My only experience of black people in Romania was of a beautiful black man I saw at the open-air market in my home town. Communist African countries and my country had exchange-student programs in the seventies and eighties, and young black men spent years in my country studying medicine or engineering. My uncle was part of a teacher exchange with what was then Zaire; he lived and taught in Africa for several years. I had no opinions about black people before we moved to America; I was fascinated simply by the way they looked. In America, the first friend I ever made -- I should say the first friend who ever made me, because I was too scared of the country and the language to make the first move -- was a black woman, a student at the community college where my sister and I enrolled at the end of our first summer here. My friend had dinner at our house several times and we studied together, and it didn't cross my mind that there was anything extraordinary about that until she confessed that she was nervous the first time she came to my house about what my parents' reaction was going to be to her being black. This floored me. I hadn't given much thought to what it meant that she was black. I didn't think it meant anything special, just like my being white didn't mean anything special.

Then I studied American history and the guilt of being white fell on my head with a huge thud. The first thing I thought was, "I'm not like that. I didn't own slaves, my ancestors didn't own slaves. I'm not like that. I'm not like that." Then I started to pay attention to how I thought and spoke about race. I remembered my revulsion and fear of gypsies, with whom I had a lot of contact in my home town, and how I never wanted to have anything to do with them. These feelings are a long way from open persecution, but still -- cultivating this kind of distance makes persecution and indifference to persecution possible. I was mortified by this discovery. I beat myself up about it. But I don't want to any more.

I want to apologize for my accidental racism. But I also want to say that we're all flawed, we all have prejudices we're not aware of. We're in it together, and that's good. Maybe next time someone will call me up on it when I make a racist remark, tap my shoulder and say, "Wait a minute." I need this kind of help; I really do.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Proust Questionnaire

The only place I splurge without guilt is the grocery store. This time I bought the expensive Dulcinea watermelon and Vanity Fair. I ate the watermelon while I read the last page of the magazine, where Margaret Atwood answered the Proust Questionnaire. Here are my answers.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being curled in the most comfortable chair in the world on a winter day, with a large mug of tea at my side, a very thick book on my lap, and nothing to do all day.

What is your greatest fear?
It vacillates between being raped and the death of my husband.

Which living person do you most admire?
Alice Munro, as a writer, not as a person. I don't know anything about her as a person.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Writing instead of having a job.

What is your favorite journey?
Coming home.

On what occasion do you lie?
To avoid hurting my parents.

Which living person do you most despise?
Liars and -- I'm going to steal Atwood's answer here -- major polluters.

What is your greatest regret?
Making decisions based on the fear of what other people would think about me.

When and where were you happiest?
There isn't a specific moment, and anyway I'm wary of happiness. But a lot of the most wonderful moments of my life have been spent in conversations with my husband.

What is your current state of mind?
Reflective, indecisive, worried.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wouldn't be embarrassed to be who I am.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I don't have one yet.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
A bee.

If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?

What is your most treasured possession?

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Complete self-absorption.

Where would you like to live?
A very green place with lots of rain.

What is your favorite occupation?
Reading. Reading and eating is such a close second it might as well be first.

What is your most marked characteristic?

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Intellectual curiosity and politeness.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Intellectual curiosity and self-possession.

Who are your favorite writers?
They change all the time.

What is your favorite hero of fiction?
I take issue with the word hero. It's too loaded. Two of my favorite fictional characters are Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch and Mitya from The Brothers Karamazov.

Who are your heroes in real life?
There are no heroes in real life.

What is it that you most dislike?

How would you like to die?
Unafraid of death.

What is your motto?
Lighten up.

I like Atwood's a lot: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. The amazing world wide web tells me that it means: don't let the bastards get you down. Sounds like Atwood all right.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Old Women

Yesterday in Japan was Respect for the Aged Day.

Two women, though they've been dead for a long time, are the most powerful old women in my life: my great-grandmother on my mother's side, and my grandmother on my father's side. My great-grandmother's name is Veronica; she died when I was in first grade. My grandmother's name is Ana; she died when I was halfway through high school. Both of them are present in my life in a way that surprises me. I don't dream about them at night. I don't talk about them with my family or anyone else. I wasn't very close to either of them when they were alive, and I don't remember conversations with them. But every once in a while I am seized by intense sadness that they are gone. I try to imagine their lives, the way they loved or didn't love their husbands and their children, what they thought about before they fell asleep. And I can't quite pull it off; I can't fill in the blanks. The sense of what's been lost by their dying in silence overwhelms me. I think this silence one is of the reasons their presence in my life is so powerful.

I know only a handful of things about them. My great-grandmother loved lemon drops and new unwrinkled banknotes. She broke her hip in her late seventies and wore special shoes after the surgery, the left one with a three-inch-thick sole to make up for her shortened bone. At Christmas she used to hide an orange in this shoe and forget about it so that nobody could figure out why it wouldn't fit till my mother stuck her hand inside and pulled the orange out. There are pictures of her giving me a bath when I was a baby, her face deeply wrinkled by the shiest of smiles. But I don't remember her touch, or the sound of her voice, or the smell of her clothes. I do remember not understanding what it meant that she had died.

My grandmother Ana fasted a lot. Every time she came to visit us she refused to have a bite to eat. She carried her money inside her bra, folded in a roll. I remember being shocked to see gold earrings in her ears once when she took off her head scarf, and a thin grey braid twisted around itself at the back of her neck. She got baptized in the Pentecostal church a few years before she died. I went to the service once and watched people all around me clapping and singing and gazing up at the ceiling of the church, watched my grandmother sing and clap and gaze along with them. None of it seemed real. I'm still puzzled by my grandmother's baptism, by what prompted her to turn to this exuberant kind of worship. I don't think I heard her speak more than a few hundred words in my entire life. I wonder what she told God in prayer.

These are bits and pieces and what they add up to doesn't feel true, doesn't feel like a full human being. I worry a lot about all the things I cannot know about other people because I cannot be other people. But maybe it's all right to hold on to this unknowing and not try to replace it with regret or with hunting down the story or with invention -- no matter how well-intentioned all these things are. Better stay with the incompleteness, with the inexplicable part of these women's presence in my life. It's not quite as reassuring as I first thought to be able to figure everything out.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Next Bite

Today is my 30th birthday. When I was young I dreamed about turning thirty. I had this vague wonderful comforting feeling that by the time I was thirty I will have figured out what my life means and how I am supposed to live it. I’d be a grown-up; I will have read so many books and understood so much about the universe and the human mind that I would have no trouble telling right from wrong and acting according to that knowledge. And here I am, thirty years old, and the only thing I know for sure is that everything in the world is much more complicated than I ever imagined, that there are no easy answers to any questions, no certainties about what’s right and what’s wrong. Here I am, thirty years old, and my biggest life accomplishment so far is that I’ve lost my illusions about what my life accomplishments are supposed to be. The emperor has no clothes and I am the emperor. I’m on some kind of path, that I can feel, but I’m walking in a direction that is seldom clear to me. I have lost courage over and over again along this way and had to stop and look around to find my bearings. I think now that this part of being forced to stop and look around is the most important part. I hate stopping. I hate the feeling of not moving forward, of not making progress – the measurable, bottom-line kind. I’ve been in a hurry for many years; I’ve run away from confusion and fear and doubt; I was terrified to take the time to sit inside them for a while and see what they can teach me. I’ve started to stop just in the last year or so, and I felt the most uncomfortable but also the most honest I have in years. This is the place I want to set out from on my 30th birthday. No more running. No more getting ahead of myself. No more lists of things I have to do before I die. So instead of Happy Birthday, what I want to wish myself is Happy Today. Husband is baking chocolate cupcakes for me. I can’t wait to bite in.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

After Silence

It was important for me yesterday to observe silence.

I'm ashamed that I still don't understand what September 11, 2001 means. I'm angry about the meanings plastered on it by politicians. I'm angry about my inability to feel deeply for the people who have died and for those who have remained behind. I watched a total of ten minutes of television on that day, listened a little bit to the radio; and I did a search on Osama bin Laden on the web and read justifications for his hatreds. And then I went back to my life. That morning I had such bad cramps that by ten o'clock I was curled on the green futon in our living room with a pillow clutched against my stomach, staring out the window at the gloomy sky. I didn't even start when I heard the sound of a key in the lock and my husband said, "They sent us home early. Something happened in New York." We turned on the television and I watched one of the twin towers still standing but with a smoking gash in it. The horror of it didn't strike me. The image didn't seem real; things like this didn't happen in the United States. I took a couple of Tylenol and lay down in bed for the rest of the morning. I talked very little with husband about what had happened. The following weeks I heard appeals for blood donations on the radio, and then appeals not to donate blood any more; the banks were full. I didn't watch any television at all after September 11. At the end of that week husband and I went up to Big Bear Lake for a weekend at a fancy bed & breakfast to celebrate our wedding and my birthday. It didn't feel as if I lived in the same world in which the airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers. It didn't make sense for it to be the same world.

I didn't listen to or watch any documentaries about that day on any of the anniversaries so far. But yesterday I made an effort to, and I heard -- with the same feeling of unrealness I experienced on September 11, 2001 -- about volunteers who have serious lung diseases because they worked without respirators at Ground Zero sifting through the rubble for evidence of bodies; about the monetary compensation the government gave to people who had lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and what the survivors did with the money (a family whose son had been killed got a million and a half and opened a foundation in his name; other opened trust funds for their kids and went clothes-shopping); about conspiracy theories and the president shaking hands with widows and kissing little girls at memorial services. I listened to the president give his address and was stunned by the lack of emotion in his voice and by his strangely cadenced sentences that feigned but failed to comfort and to explain. I observed the day as best as I could. But that best isn't good enough. It won't be good enough until I break my routine and snatch the safety of everyday habits from under my feet and think about what it really means to stand in front of nothing.

Fiction, I think, is going to help me do that. I've read the first fictional account of September 11 in Julia Glass's novel The Whole World Over. It moved me in a way that no story about what happened on that day had. I wasn't crushed by the utter horror of it; I didn't have to close my eyes and my heart in order to be able to go on; I was able to feel for the people and the city. I feel prepared now to watch the two movies that just came out, able to stand still and experience what seemed impossible to experience five years ago, or four or three or two. It is late, true, to wake up just now to the truth that the world has changed. But I'm always late for such things. I'm late for them when they happen within the boundaries of my small life.

The picture above is by Chris Gollon. At services for remembering the dead in my country the priest blesses bread with a candle stuck in it, a thin black ribbon tied around the yellow candle. The bread is then given away to the people who have come to attend the service, and also to the destitute. I couldn't find any picture of bread and candles so I picked this one instead. It seems just the right expression for the feeling inside my slowly denumbing heart.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Only Connect

Every time I read this last sentence of Howards End I get a little shiver down my spine. I'm very inept socially; with most people other than my husband I make frenetic and bad small talk and smile till the muscles in my face ache in order to hide my embarrassement and confusion about the right things to say. I have no idea how you go about making friends and having a conversation that is honest and exciting for all the people involved. I tend to talk a lot about books and issues of social justice (the conversations I have veer a lot towards animal rights), and it seems to me arrogant and off-putting. I don't seem to be able to read what's going on in other people's heads, to hear what they're really saying, and to respond to that as sincerely and unaffectedly as I can.

I've been having a long-distance argument with my mother for the past few weeks about the number of times I call her and my father during the week to ask how they are; she's upset that I don't call every day, just to hear her voice, even if I have nothing of substance to say to her. "I feel like I want to call you three times a day," she tells me, "and I just don't understand why it bothers you to just call me and ask if we're okay, and hear we're okay." It kills me inside to have to talk but have nothing to say. I cannot share my inner life with my parents; they become didactic and stiff and suggest that I should make changes in my life that I don't think are the right changes for me. So we skip around on the surface of things, exchanging platitudes, and I feel like such a cheat daughter when I do that. There must be a better way to do this.

It happens sometimes when I'm with my sister; we're close and I can talk to her about the confusion and frustration in my life without fear that she'll judge me or try to fix me as if my mind were a new arrival in the ER. There are times, though, when silence falls between us and I feel compelled to break it because I assume that for most people silence is not an acceptable way to be with someone else; only words will do. Silence means you're not making an effort; it means you're not really thinking about anything, and in particular you're not thinking about the person who is with you; it means that you'd like the other person to leave now. I'm troubled by these assumptions of what silence is; I think they're inaccurate and harmful; and yet over and over when I'm with someone else I succumb to these old habits of covering up silence with anything I can, even if it's trivial, empty words.

How do you really connect with someone else? How do you meet on honest ground? How do you pull the masks down? Would this be a better world if we could manage that, or a worse? Does being honest mean we let it all hang out, beautiful and ugly emotions jumbled together? Isn't there room to be polite while you're honest, to be civilized while you're trying to really speak your mind? Does truth have to be sharp, does it always have to hurt?

Pema Chodron said a few weeks back on Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason that the only response that makes sense when people have gone through a terrible thing together -- she was speaking of 9/11 and the myriad random and not so random acts of kindness that New Yorkers found themselves performing -- is kindness. There was no mask; everyone was in pain and honest about being in pain; and it didn't make any sense to increase this pain by treating each other as miserably as we usually do. It's something to think about: that we will connect with each other in truth and kindness when we realize that the everyday reality of being human is a disaster state because there's really nothing in the world that's safe, nothing permanent to hold on to. Pema Chodron says, in her strong, clear, childlike voice, that this uncertainty is not bad news, because it also makes us free.

Well, that's nice. But when I come back down to earth and try to think about my mother and the daily phone calls that would make her happy, the problem changes. It seems to me, at least, to change. I don't know how to be kind to me mother while at the same time remain true to myself. To accomplish this seems to me a feat beyond what is human. To connect to other people while remaining yourself, not faking who you are -- how, how to do it? How to do it with your co-worker or your neighbor or your cousin or your brother-in-law?

My neighbor gave birth a month ago; I found this out from my parents who, when they came to visit us on the weekend, ran into the neighbor and her new baby. I feel compelled to ring at my neighbor's door and offer my congratulations, perhaps give her some homemade bread as a gift. But I'm afraid to do it. I'm afraid that my gesture will be misinterpreted, scoffed at. I don't want to expose myself like that. But perhaps that's the secret: not to be afraid of exposure, not to be afraid of anything except dishonesty, faking it, masks.