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.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Well-Documented Life

A man named Gordon Bell is determined to put his whole life inside a computer. He wears a camera around his neck that takes a picture every time it senses a person nearby or when the light changes. He records his conversations, keeps track of all the Web sites he visits, all the e-mails he sends and receives, and has scanned all the paper documents in and about his life. He stores all this information digitally -- an indestructible copy of his life.

On an intellectual level, this exhilarates me. My curiosity about people is insatiable; often I fantasize about working as a house cleaner just so that I can go into people's houses and surreptitiously examine their possessions, the food in their pantries, the photographs on their mantelpieces, the books on their coffee tables. I cannot resist stopping in front of a lit window with the blinds left open and peering inside at the family sitting at their dining table or watching television, or simply staring at the color of their walls and the paintings hanging on them. Once I saw a giant porcelain giraffe towering over a coffee table, and my imagination was ablaze working out what kind of people own such a thing and who might have given it to them. I want to know what people talk about, how they see the world, what they find significant and what trivial. I love family photographs, formal or informal, and don't tire to interpret the geometry of faces and bodies in them and to puzzle out what happened before the picture was taken and what is going to happen after.

I gazed with awe at the photograph of my nephew when he was nothing more than four cells swiftly dividing, and I wondered how he will feel when he looks at himself at this inchoate stage as an adult. To see yourself being almost nothing seems as marvelous and mind-shattering to me as being able to see yourself minutes after you died. What completeness, this, what sense of a beginning and an ending.

Only stories are able to give you this kind of completeness now. And they do it not with literal truth, not with weight and breadth of information, but with imaginative truth. And that means knowing vertically, in depth, a few significant things. This is where having an exact memory of everything that happens in your life -- and exact is what digital memories are -- begins to sadden me. They're all about surface, all about quantity. They discount entirely the importance of the mental work we exert when we try to fill the empty spaces that forgetting leaves inside us.

I'm starting to sound mystical. But all I mean is that digital memories give us the illusion that we can know who we are and who others are by the amount of documents -- words, images -- we have about them, and the more documents the better. After my husband's grandmother died, the family went through the photographs she had taken in her ninety-six years of life. There were piles and piles of albums, with hundreds of photographs inside each. After a point, I felt crushed by the tons and tons of details about her life. Nothing seemed significant any more, nothing seemed to matter that much. In the middle of an album I stumbled on a handful of typed pages of the diary she had kept on a trip to Switzerland, where her family was from. I pounced on them the way you pounce on a glass of simple hot tea after eating too much rich food. She came alive for me in these pages. They stood for just a fragment of her, but she seemed more real that way. In the same way, I have only one photograph of my paternal grandfather -- or rather half of one; my grandmother cut herself out of it before she gave it to her daughter, my aunt, to keep. Every time I look at this photograph I feel a pang -- of pleasure as much as pain. Here he is, I think, someone else in his full unknowability. It humbles me. It makes me respect what I cannot comprehend about who he was.

I believe this with my whole mind and heart: that we cannot know the other, and that awareness of this lack of knowledge is the necessary and sufficient quality to live in peace with him or with her. I have learned this for the first time and in the hardest way because of my mother. I'm more different from her than I am from any other person in my life. Once I accepted that I cannot understand her, I was able to stop warring with her. I have to work on this every time we're together, but the foundation is in place.

So what am I doing here, writing my one hundred and thirtieth (or thereabouts) post, making myself trivial by cranking out hundreds of thousands of words about my inner life? I come around to this question regularly, and I have decided not to be ashamed of it any more, not to run away from the only answer I'm able to give it: that I simply don't know. I'm following a compulsion, I'm stumbling around in a dark labyrinth with my hand clasped tightly around this desire as if it were the rope that could guide me out. It may be, and it may not. But I don't have anything else to go by for now.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


I wax lyrical when I think about physical work. Compared to intellectual effort it is straightforward and simple. It has clear and palpable results, and your body feels its consequences: muscles are sore, the back achy, the stomach gets ferociously hungry. Sleep and food become sweet rewards, complete in themselves.

My father always insisted that my sister and I know what physical work entailed, so that we can appreciate what other people do for us to have food on the table and a roof over our heads. When we were teenagers he bought a vineyard up on a hill outside the city where we lived; there was a garden at the bottom of the hill where he and my mother and my grandparents planted tomatoes and peppers, carrots and parsnips and kohlrabi, herbs and potatoes. We worked on the vineyard, weeded the garden, and dug up potatoes cheek by jowl with the adults. I spent part of my summer vacation out in the fields, helping my father harvest hay and pick plums in our family orchard. It was hard, dusty work in the sun, with breaks for lunch that I remember as the worst part of the day because I was so ravenous that I got sick from eating too fast, and because it was so excruciating to go back to work with my stomach full and my body soaked in the languor of early afternoon.

I'm not nostalgic about these experiences except when I get stumped in my current work, when my thoughts remain shrouded in ambiguity despite my efforts to clarify them, when I puzzle over an idea or concept and cannot untangle it. That is when I long for physical effort, for going outside and starting a garden, for scouring our house clean, for kneeding a large basin of bread dough. So I do it. I roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.

A few weeks ago I agreed to help my father pave our back yard. We used to have a creaky wooden deck there and scraggly grass that I sowed all by myself (another project to deal with mental frustration) about a year and a half ago. All of that had to be taken out. After that, we mixed concrete -- almost one hundred 90-lb. bags of it, two bags at a time -- and poured and pounded and leveled it. I told my dad I'd made a mistake; I'd had no idea it would be such back-breaking work, and this much of it. He laughed. (His laugh angered me as much as the sheer brutality of the work.) He said, "It is better not to know. Then you are able to start. And then you go on one concrete sack at a time."

This particular piece of wisdom annoyed me. I'd heard it before. Sure, I thought, easy for you to say. Except that it wasn't. He knew what he was talking about. Heavy work has been a constant in his life since he was a boy. He defines himself by it, takes pride in it in a way that astonishes and sometimes saddens me. He hasn't been brutalized by it either; he is a thinking man, a reading man, a contemplative man. He manages to attain a balance that I envy between contemplation and action.

And this is the secret I'm getting at, I suppose: balance. Moving between book and shovel, words and concrete, thought and sweat. I sort of throw myself head-first from one to the other and exhaust myself with both.

Yesterday we finished pouring the last of the concrete. I don't feel relief as much as awe: is it possible that I have actually done this? My father did the lion's share of the work, that is true. But I helped, and the help I gave was more than I thought I'd be capable of. I surprised myself; and this, strangely enough, unsettles me. But I have this to ponder: that I did it all one concrete sack at a time.

(The painting above is by Ellen Rolli.)

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Convenient Self

The only kind of relationship I manage to be in with my adoptive country is a love-hate one.

Yesterday, nearly seven years after I got my American citizenship, I finally applied for an American passport. The postal officer who processed my application asked why it took me so long. It sounded like one of those questions that have right and wrong answers, and the truth is the wrong one. I didn’t become an American citizen on principle but because it was a practical thing to do. While I recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the citizenship ceremony I felt nothing but mortification at my insincerity and at how breezily I justified it. My entire family was there, mouthing the same words, pressing their hands on their hearts, and it seemed as if we were all being swallowed by a giant creature.

I have to admit that this creature is not always malevolent. Here is what I love about this country, and in case I appear overly positive (I have yet to be accused of this particular tresspass, but just in any case…) you must remember that I grew up in a Communist dictatorship that starved its citizens of both bread and thought:

Stuff gets talked about. No matter how extreme your position, there’s a publication you can have your voice heard in. There’s censorship in this country, to be sure, but you don’t disappear or die if you speak against it. Reporters ask tough questions at political press conferences. Books get published on controversial topics and can be bought (some more easily than others, that’s true.) There are hundreds of newspapers of every imaginable stripe. As we speak, a woman and a black man are running for president. As we speak, Pixar is making another smart and stunning-looking animated movie. You can buy a hybrid car at an affordable price. Then there are the oceans and the prairie and the Rocky Mountains, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, redwood trees and Georgia peaches. And the woman in Vermont who makes butter from the milk of her Jersey cows in the old-fashioned way of nineteenth-century farmers; community colleges and grassroots political organizations; recycling; the Civil Rights Movement.

And now for the other side of the coin, the things that infuriate me about this country:

American arrogance (not always unjustified). Consumerism. The fact that very few people speak more than one language. Freeways. Suburbs and strip malls. The price of theater and opera and classical music concert tickets. The platitudes people spout out about multiculturalism. Slavery and its legacy. The fact that the only two things people mention to me about Romania is that it’s the birth place of Dracula and of the gymnast Nadia Comaneci. The compliments I receive for speaking and writing English well, as if English were a secret society that only native speakers can enter. Hollywood and the fashion industry. The self-help and diet industry (though these are not entirely evil). McDonald’s. Animal factory farming.

And now the best part: this country has made it possible for me to live the perfect life, a life I would never have been able to have (and would not have allowed myself to have) in Romania. It has made it possible for me to be unconventional, it’s made room for me outside the wheels and cogs of its money-making machines.

This brings me back to my passport application, which required me to list my occupation. I put none at first. This is the truth, as much as I can see it; I’m in an in-between place, not sure about what my life is or is becoming. But the postal officer said that I couldn’t put down none. “They don’t like that,” he said. “Even stay-at-home moms put down stay-at-home mom, or domestic goddess.” He smiled slyly at me. “Really,” he said. “I actually had a lady who put down domestic goddess as her occupation.” “Okay,” I said, wondering who “they” are, who don’t like American citizens with passports to list none as an occupation. And I wrote down writer.

At any given time, then, you need a definition for yourself. People don’t seem to understand you without one. Writer is a definition that I particularly mind at the moment. But it’s convenient. Much like that of American citizen.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


When I was in kindergarten I used to hide under my teacher's chair. It was covered in pale blue and red cloth stitched with white ponies; the cloth draped over the chair's legs, so that the bottom part of it was like a tent. I ran off to this hiding place whenever my teacher had her back turned, taking nothing with me, not even the tiniest toy. I crouched there in the dusty light and sniffed at the front of my polyester uniform that always had stains of soup and tea and hot cocoa on it. This for me is a memory of perfect happiness. I don't recall disliking the other children in my class, or being afraid of the teacher, just that I wanted to be alone and away from noise. Quiet is still important to me; it's fuel for my brain. And I don't mean just the quiet that is the absence of noise or of spoken words, but the absence of thought altogether. I resisted acknowledging this for a long time; what is the absence of thought but the absence of intelligence? I hated Krishnamurti and argued vehemently with the friend who recommended that I read his work. Meditation, I said, is nothing but settling for being stupid for twenty minutes a day.

I was very pleased with the cleverness of this statement and didn't budge from this position until after I married and began to know my husband better and better. He is someone for whom silence and isolation are even more important than they are for me. He dislikes talking; for the first few months after we met we had conversations almost exclusively by e-mail. He sent me the most thoughtful and intriguing and intellectually stimulating e-mails I've ever received. He got me interested in physics and anthropology and computer science and re-whetted my appetite for philosophy. Here was someone who thought -- profoundly, carefully, thoroughly. This is the main reason I wanted to spend my life with him: I loved talking to him.

Except what we did by e-mail wasn't talking, really; we didn't exchange sentences in real time, didn't react immediately to one another's words and interrupt each other and perform all that heady, electric give-and-take that is part of a spoken conversation. My husband is unwilling (though able) to participate in this give-and-take and downright suspicious of it. Sometimes, after we have a particularly heated talk -- and by this I don't mean a fight but an argument whose implications interest us intellectually -- he says he feels tempted to tell me disregard everything he just said because he feels he hasn't thought it through carefully enough, hasn't spent enough time figuring out if the words he has said actually mean what he wanted to say. Spoken conversations happen way too fast, he says, for them to carry you to a conclusion that is valuable and whose solidity you can trust. Language is too ambiguous a medium to express ideas in during a thirty-minute talk while you're driving to your parents' house for Sunday dinner.

I admire his scrupulousness. But I also question his assumption that ideas are separate from language, that they can pass through words like water through pipes, that thoughts wear language like a coat, one that doesn't fit more often than it does. I wouldn't be able to come here and write if I didn't believe that the coat can shape the body it's wrapped around. But I find my husband's frustration with language enormously useful. Because of it he constantly presses me during our conversations (which I initiate and keep going sometimes despite his evident discomfort) to explain what I mean by this or that word I'm using; his questions force me to separate what I think I know from what I actually know, and enable me to change my mind in a way that exhilarates rather than embarasses me. I tell him so, and he smiles in a shy and somewhat distrusting way and says, "Oh, well, I guess that's good." It is good. It is the best that anyone has done for my mental life.

I've come to think of his need for silence and for time to think as another form of meditation, one that doesn't involve grinding your thoughts to a halt but sitting with them patiently for a while and letting them move about in their subtle ways, between and under and around words, sometimes into them. And that is what meditation really is. Not emptiness, not stupidity, not blindness. I like to think of meditation as a kind of composting because it's uncomfortable and messy but extraordinarily fertile. Its messiness reassures me, in a way. It means that even I, with all my limitations, can do it.

I can't explain how these photographs fit in with this post but they do. I discovered the work of photographer Guy Gagnon (guygagnon.com) in LensWork magazine. I will allow myself to be callow for a moment and say that I didn't know photography could do this.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hello, For Now

After this long silence, it is fitting I think to begin with death.

On the first Friday in January, Tuppence, my husband's pet turtle for the past twenty-two years, swam into a dark corner of his tank and died. A week later, my husband's ninety-six-year-old grandmother died late at night of kidney failure while my mother-in-law sang a hymn to calm her fears. "See you in heaven," she'd told us the last winter we were there, and of course we said, "No, Grandma, don't talk like that. We'll see you many times before that." How cowardly she must have thought us, not to acknowledge that death was in the room, that death is always in the room.

Neither of these deaths was unexpected, yet they shocked me profoundly. I handled Tuppence's corpse, and I stood very close to Grandmother's body in the open coffin, almost touched the beautiful white and green embroidered shirt she was wearing, her stiffly folded hands. The stillness of death turned what had been familiar flesh and blood into strangers. I had to remind myself again and again that what I was touching, seeing, saying goodbye to was Tuppence, our turtle, and Grandma, our Grandma. For they looked nothing like what I knew them to be. I wasn't scared of their bodies for more than a moment, and that was an impulsive, irrational fear. What has stayed with me until now is bafflement. And no, what's incomprehensible isn't that we die, but that death is such an emptying, such complete stillness. I'm agnostic about the existence of the soul, but I saw, as I stood face to face with death, why the soul might be a necessary explanation for what happens to us once we stop breathing (and, for that matter, once we begin; birth is just as astonishing to me as death).

I find myself in a different relationship with these unknowns now that I've begun to study biology. I'm taking an introductory class at a community college and reading my textbook with a voracity that sometimes embarrasses me. The beginning of life on earth billions of years ago, the formation of the first cell, the chemistry of fermentation and photosynthesis, fill me with wonder in a way that the creation story never did. I find it difficult to understand what is lost by giving up on the literalness of the six-day-long jellying of darkness into galaxies and gardens, and by examining with reverent attention what biology and chemistry tell us about life in the universe. Lightheadedness and nausea seize me occasionally when I think about the trillion cells in my body doing their work; this is more miraculous to me than God listening in on my dreams. I know, I know, my head is high up in the clouds of science. But I won't apologize for that. Soon enough I'll plunk right back down to the ground; my anchor, pessimism, is always with me. Until then I want to marvel shamelessly, not least because I was afraid of science for so long, afraid that it was impermeable to my ability to understand. Some of it still is; but some of it isn't.

One field of biology that particularly interests me is systematics, which deals with the classification of living things, with their names and the way they are ordered in relation to one another. A curious intersection has occurred in the past few weeks (I find that now that I'm reading so widely this isn't so uncommon or so miraculous) between science and literature. Quite by accident I stumbled on Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, and in this book several characters are gardeners, one a botanist. The question of classification and order stands behind the words of this novel like a benevolent ghost. Of course it's a question asked not only about plants but about the bits and pieces that make up everyday life, which the imagination takes hold of and turns into a (sometimes deceiving) whole. This is the fallacy, the awful temptation: that a whole can be created out of what is disparate, that order can be imposed. My worries, my fears, my despair about what my life can be summed up as, all stem from this fallacy. I'm not able yet to give up its comforts. But I'm trying to wean myself from them, to come back to what is happening now, wriggle back inside the scrap of my life going on right now. Today this means taking up writing here again. Tomorrow will bring its own surprises.