Where I'm Coming From

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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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Good Bye, For Now

I heard on NPR that bears in Siberia haven't gone into hibernation this year because of unusual high winter temperatures in that part of the world. I understood suddenly and completely -- a heart-sinking epiphany -- what it means to live on this slightly squashed sphere that rotates in space, with its blue helmet of atmosphere beneath which burn fires, literal and metaphorical, that we cannot easily put out, and that are coming close, second by second and century by century, to killing us off. I suppose I've already dipped my toe into the awfully complicated and violent topic of global warming, but I don't want to go any further than that. All I want is to record a moment when I saw myself in a context. Life on this planet feels to me disjunct, fragmented. I don't see the connection between myself as a biological being and the life of my neighbor two doors down or of a professor in South Africa or a peasant in China, of sea plankton or extraterrestrial beings, except in abstract terms, as a result of intellectual effort.

I've written about this before. I've written before as well about what I'm about to write about now: my relationship to my body as a body with needs that I'm not sympathetic to most of the time, that discomfit me and that I feel compelled to reject or repress. I return to these topics, I roam about inside and on and under them until they become threadbare and full of holes. Shoddy. And so I thought maybe the time has come to bow out and be quiet for a while. Besides connection to the world outside myself, those bears in Siberia started me thinking about hibernation, about slinking away to a cave and keeping hidden for a while. Sleep. A small, temporary death (no allusion intended to la petite mort), a period of stillness, of silence, of nothing-doing.

My gut tells me that it's time for it in the space of this blog. The most important sign, the reason I trust my gut feeling, is a disenchantment I've started to feel with myself when I'm here, a faint boredom with the content of my thoughts. And if I don't care that much about what I have to say, then how can anyone else? I've been troubled by the public nature of this space since day one, and this discomfort never dissipated. I'm more familiar with it now, a little more at ease with it, but it's still there, a thorn-in-the-side kind of friend. Openness will never come easily to me, at least outside my close relationships. I've felt almost every week as I sat in front of the blank Blogger message window the impulse to hide, not to write my blog for fear that people I knew and people I didn't know would read it. I have to give myself credit for the courage to show up to write despite this very deep-seated reluctance. It seems a little silly to talk about having lived in the spotlight, but that's how this year of blogging felt to me. It's been a tiny and rather dim spotlight, but it seemed quite blinding and enormous to me.

So I'm going back into the shadows, at least for a while. I don't want to run without looking back, to bolt thoughtlessly back into my comfort zone, so this is my attempt at a graceful last bow on the stage. Thank you to everyone who has read. You gave me the feeling that I was a part of a community of minds, and that was an unexpectedly good feeling.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Letter Addiction

I've waited for this for years: a Scrabble game for the Mac. Well, it is here. Last Friday I installed it on my computer, and on Saturday evening I played for six hours straight. Yes. Six hours. My eyes stung, my head hurt, but I kept clicking on Play Again over and over -- when I lost because I was determined to win the next game, and when I won because I was heady with the victory and wanted to ride the adrenaline. I played 25-minute tournament games against the Smart level of the computer, and lost ten and won two. I was a woman possessed.

Nothing seizes me by the throat like this. And I mean nothing, not even reading. I've been known to spend whole days on the sofa reading but that was during summer vacations when I had nothing else to do but tackle Bleak House and Anna Karenina. This time, in order to play Scrabble, I neglected cooking dinner and doing my homework, and wouldn't stop even when my eyes were blood red and I could hardly keep them open. It was scary. As I collapsed into sleep at half past one in the morning, I made myself promise to limit myself to one game a week. I felt sick and ashamed and yet still impatient to play. The next morning, on Sunday, all I could think about after I woke up was when I'd be able to play Scrabble again. I forced myself to do my reading and writing and cooking and cleaning, and then when I finally got the the computer I asked Husband to help me stop after the first game. He did help me -- and I almost shouted at him. But he said very nicely, very gently, "Now step away from the computer, click Exit and step away and you can play again tomorrow." I want to laugh now at how ridiculous it all was. But at the time I felt angry and ashamed and irritated with him. I kept it under control since then, at maximum two games a day, in the evening, after I've finished my work. But I feel as if I'm carrying inside me this new person, this computer-Scrabble-obsessed person. And it is, to say the least, rather uncomfortable.

I've heard stories about people playing computer games for three days in a row, not eating, not sleeping, not going to the bathroom. It boggled my mind; that intensity of obsession seemed utterly incomprehensible. Well, not any more. I've had a glimpse of the beautiful madness. I'm acquiring, along with a better vocabulary, much humility about my ability to control my own impulses. I have a tendency to be contemptuous of people who do irrational things; I judge harshly people who don't run their lives by the power of reason, by intellect rather than emotions and impulses and gut feelings. And again I've come to this: it is never as simple as that, as straightforward as heart versus mind, reason versus impulse. They're not like oil and water; they mix, insinuate themselves into one another, separate and come together again in complicated ways.

Alan Watts says somewhere that the way the world works is much like a game -- in the best sense of the word game. It's good to play with your whole heart (and mind), but also to be able to step back and not take it too seriously in the end. (I hope I haven't misunderstood Watts.) Maybe that's why games are so compelling. And also, for me, because there's clear winning and losing at the end. I find that reassuring. I know where I stand when a game of Scrabble is over. And that, to me right now, is quite heartening.

Monday, December 04, 2006


For some months now I've felt that the time has come for a change. Outer or inner -- I can't tell yet. To think differently, or to do differently, or both. I've lived in a paradise of sorts for five years -- writing, reading, not a care in the world about the roof about my head and the food on the table, enough money to buy books, enough time to examine my life and what I was trying to make out of it -- but also in a hell of sorts. I felt worthless for not having a job, stupid because I couldn't write like Dostoyevsky or Alice Munro, ashamed when I imagined what my parents saw when they looked at me. I applied myself to being patient, to learning how to be satisfied with small steps forward, to not minding that I am average, ordinary, nothing special. It's been harder than I thought. I don't know if this is just me, or if it's a feeling everyone has, this nebulous but intense conviction about your own specialness, about being destined for great things. They don't have to be, necessarily, outwardly great things, like fame or wealth. It's just this idea that you were born to do one specific thing, that you have a talent -- more in the biblical than the psychological sense -- that you need to use in the world, even if you do it in utter obscurity and poverty. That there is one path meant for you and once you find it and walk it you will be fulfilled, you will have done what you were meant to do.

This sounds beautiful and reassuring. And also vaguely spurious. And limiting. Someone said to me recently that I would do really well in graduate school, working towards a Ph.D. in English, and suggested that it was silly of me not to pursue such a degree. How can one justify refusing to do what one is good at? But I think -- I am, as a matter of fact, convinced of this -- that though I might be good for graduate school, graduate school would not be good for me. It would take my very soul from me and give me almost nothing in return. But my friend started me thinking about what it means to be good at something. Do you plunge into doing that thing you're good at? Do you do it because you know for sure that at the end of the road the rewards await you, because there's no doubt that you will do well? Or do you turn away to look for something that you enjoy doing, even though you might not be good at it? Can you be happy doing something you're not good at? Is it possible to be happy painting or plumbing when you can be nothing more than a mediocre painter or plumber?

I find the idea of usefulness enormously compelling. It troubles me how useless, how impractical it is to be an English professor or a writer, how removed from the real world these professions seem to be. I had the same feeling when I was working as a secretary in the law school dean's office after graduating from college. The artifice of the interactions I engaged in, the futility of each day's work, more than the work itself, wore me out. The question what it was all for haunted me every moment of the day. I was good at that kind of work; I'm organized and disciplined and hate being idle, so I completed the work I was given way ahead of when it was due, and then did things around the office without being asked to. My parents were proud of me, and I was dismayed by their pride; how could they be happy to see me suceed in a kind of work that seemed utterly pointless to me?

I quit that job to write. Writing didn't seem pointless to me. At least not until it occurred to me that I was no Dostoyevsky or Alice Munro. I earned every little bit of progress I made with painstaking work. I seldom felt inspired, seldom felt confident that my stories were interesting. Nobody who read what I had written expressed any kind of surprise or awe. Not bad, they said. Hm, they said. Interesting, they said. But that was about it. And I didn't have confidence in my own work that could compensate for the lack of encouragement from outside. There are some people who believe in themselves recklessly, who can sustain this kind of faith in what they can do when everything around them works to undermine it. I'm not one of those people. I started to yearn, desperately, for reassurance -- from myself more than other people. I wanted to make something with my mind and with my hands that I could judge as good or bad according to objective standards. If you're a plumber, a pipe either leaks or doesn't leak when you've finished working on it. If you're a chef, your food either tastes good or it doesn't. If you're a scientist, your experiment either suceeds or fails. It is this kind of clarity that I want in my life. I'm not sure if I can feel happy or fulfilled without it. It is to bring it in my life -- a little bit of it, I'm not aiming very high here -- that I feel change is necessary. Inevitable.

But I don't picture this change as a path I choose at a fork in the road, as new way of life that excludes the old, that cancels out everything I've done so far. It feels to me more like a decision to wear clothes that fit you better, that you feel at ease and more yourself in. That requires really looking at who you are, really seeing who you are right now. And that seems to me the hardest thing in the world to do.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bread (and Chocolate) Alone

I think about food all the time. I think about eating it and cooking it, about buying it and giving it away. Chili cheese fries from Native Foods, chocolate cake and a glass of cold milk, deep dish pizza, vegan cookies I want to bake for Christmas, the toast and tomato salad I'm going to eat for lunch. I think about how little I should eat, and how many delicious and unhealthy things I can get away with tucking in without getting indigestion or becoming overweight. I wonder what's good for my body and what isn't, which gastronomical pleasures are worth stomachaches and a few extra pounds on the hips, and which aren't. And this bothers me -- it bothers me very deeply. It reminds me of how much of me is a body, cells and molecules, an implausibly beautiful and mind-boggling conglomeration of hard and soft tissue, electricity and water. And it reminds me, which is the more troubling element of all this, that I am a woman, that I am a woman in twenty-first century United States, whose mind has fed, among other things, on the philosophy that being fat is a moral failure, that health is a moral imperative, that what you eat reveals more than anything else who you are. I must believe all this; under the bright uncomfortable lights of self-examination, I can find no other explanation for my obsession with food.

During the past few days I felt under the weather, and I was annoyed with myself for getting sick. I had failed to keep my body strong enough, through good eating and vigorous exercise, to fight off whatever virus I'd picked up. I felt responsible for the cold I sensed coming on; I thought that my eating french fries on Friday was the equivalent of self-sabotage. If only I had stuck to whole wheat toast and vegetables, if only I had taken vitamins and gone to an extra yoga class, I would have been all right.

But it occurred to me, as I sat on the couch and tried, with increased irritation, to warm my feet and swallow the itchiness in my throat, that it's not as simple as that. Really. The world doesn't work like an equation; you don't put in an x amount of something and get a neat y. The body isn't a machine -- at least not a simple one, with straightforward inputs and outputs.

I find myself saying all the things the body isn't and can't quite say what it is. I find the Christian definition, "temple of the holy spirit," useful although I'm not religious. It seems to capture the paradox of the absolute significance and absolute insignificance of the body. Afterlife or no afterlife, flesh and blood matter in and of themselves, work their marvelous secret work all on their own, and yet the mind, consciousness -- I should have said this before: I'm talking here about the human body, the human mind -- seems separate from it and above it. All the language I know, that of Western philosophy of course, puts the mind in charge of the body, like a rider in charge of his horse. The quickest example I can think of, for this, is the placebo effect. The counterexample -- this occurred to me just now -- is fever- or drug-induced hallucinations. So -- neither body and mind is in charge. They influence each other, balance each other, exist in a tight and minutely complex relationship -- like a binary star system. I like this image -- how equalitarian and slightly grandiose and absurd it is. Being human in this eternally swelling universe is being everything and being nothing, perfectly logical and perfectly preposterous.

Tomorrow morning, if my cold doesn't get worse, I'm going to take a cooking class on chocolate at Sur La Table. I'm going to break my vegan eating rules, I know; I won't be able to resist the marvelous confections I'll learn how to prepare. My sister is coming with me. I look forward to this with an embarrassing, childish enthusiasm. I look forward to being reminded that food is about happiness and about connection with other people, that joy rather than health is a moral obligation, that discipline and abstinence work as rules not only to be respected but also to be broken every once in a while. There's a nice place there beyond discipline -- a little patch of grass, a table with a white tablecloth and tea things, cakes and scones and muffins and cucumber and cream-cheese sandwiches and, across from you, someone with whom you can talk about everything and never get bored. It's good to visit it sometimes.