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.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Brain Gym

I found this poster taped on a door in downtown Portland. For better or worse, I've been an unwitting member of this group for many, many years. I don't have the heart to rescind my membership, so here's to many more years of belonging to -- I can't quite believe I'm going to write this down -- the Brain Gym.

Friday, March 30, 2007

On Battles

Everyone, I read, strives to maintain a positive picture of oneself. I was thumbing through a book that was determined to teach me something about myself. Although I distrust books like this, I paused to think about what it was telling me. Outside the window the manzanita shook in the wind, the light was crisp and lemon-yellow. And I thought: No. It’s not about the positive but the consistent. What we really struggle to do is hold on tight to constancy. We don’t want to change. So I say, in order to ground myself, that I am disciplined, that I am a good daughter or a bad daughter, that I am impulsive or that I am generous, neurotic or curious. I believe that this or that person hates me because hatred is easier to bear than uncertainty. I make a map of myself so that at night when the suspicion that the center doesn’t hold seizes me, I can find my way back to solid ground, to what I know for, more or less, sure.

I’ve believed with such fierce childishness that one day I’d have my life figured out. I would find happiness at last, or become at peace with unhappiness. I’d get along with my mother and make my father proud of me. The insecurities I’d have would be trifling, easy to overcome. Perhaps it would take me my whole life to get there, but I will get there. And then I’ll be able to rest, even if it’s only for an hour before my death.

This is how I know heaven doesn’t exist. It cannot exist simply because I, or everyone else, desire it. Besides, it is the easy way out. Hell is too, though it holds a different kind of comfort in its jurisdiction. Dichotomies are solid ground in a universe that has no solid ground. Everything changes all the time. Very few things are just this or just that. I’ve changed in myriad ways just from yesterday to today. The strangeness of being what I was yesterday and being what I am today suddenly struck me this morning. It’s not only a matter of mu cells dying and being born, of shifts of matter inside my body, of the ebb and flow of gases in my lungs, but of my state of mind, my mood, my thoughts. There is no way to relive yesterday exactly as it was, or to predict what will happen in the next hour or the next day. There is no way to get a hold of what’s ahead and shape it so that it doesn’t startle or frighten or exhilarate me.

Not that I don’t try. I make schedules, endless careful lists of things to do. And only once in a while does it occur to me how pointless all of this is, what a ridiculously fragile web I weave in which to rock myself to inner peace.

I don’t quite know why this piece of advice from the poet William Stafford keeps popping up into my head lately: “Lower your standards.” He intended it as advice for writing, and I follow it when I’m at the end of my rope and nothing else will get me to pen and paper. But there’s another side to it, and it’s contained in the word “standard,” which refers not only to quality but to a flag, the banner of an army regiment. So what I hear, other than keep writing, is to stop fighting. To give up struggling and defining myself in opposition to things. To be active in a different way than with bayonet and the cry to battle.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


This first one was not my own but B.'s, my husband: Mrs. Beetham, fifth grade teacher, who always kept in her desk a stash of Jolly Rancher candies. She was an older woman, stout, and maybe did or maybe didn’t wear glasses. B. doesn’t remember. (I think she did. Mother-of-pearl frames, though they might have been expensive for a teacher, with a silver chain hanging from the frame hinges and looping around her neck. I also think, for some reason, that she didn’t wear comfortable shoes and so developed corns that her husband shaved off with a razor on Saturday mornings after her bath.)

She loved Jolly Rancher candies. When she’d assigned her class an exercise to work on independently, and nothing could be heard in the room but the scribble of pencils and the quiet, absent-minded shuffle of fifth-grade feet on the floor, she would open her candy stash drawer ever so carefully. Not taking her eyes off the children for one moment, she would fumble for the candy – that must have been one of the pleasures of it, surprising herself with the flavor her fingers settled on – and unwrap it. B. remembers the crinkle of the cellophane wrapper mixing in with all the other raspings and whispers in the classroom. It was a familiar sound, and a funny sound, because Mrs. Beetham appeared convinced that nobody else could hear it. Then she would cough slightly, cover her mouth with the hand in which the unwrapped candy was nestled, and pop it into her mouth. All innocent looking, as if her deception was too clever for anyone to see through.

I can feel, though I was never there, could never go there in the flesh, the tension in the room releasing once the candy is in her mouth, her body softening as the sugary fruitiness fills her mouth. I can see a girl lifting her head from her work and looking at her with a wry smile, and Mrs. Beetham suspecting – for a fraction of a moment only, then swiftly brushing the thought aside – that her secret wasn’t a secret. I can imagine Mrs. Beetham being called out of the room for a minute or five, and a few brave souls scurrying to her desk, opening the desk drawer and looking at the bag of candy, the other kids half-standing at their desks and peering in the hope of seeing but staying out of danger, a nervous giggle breaking out in the back of the class, and the air thick with the fearful pleasure of discovering an adult’s hidden world, how much and how little it has in common with one’s own world as a child.

Now for one of my own fifth grade teachers: Mrs. Seracin Angela – or rather Comrade Professor Seracin Angela, because the Communists were still in the full flush of their power while I was growing up. Her winter boots were black, high-heeled and so well-polished you could see your reflection on the leather. She had the blackest hair I’ve ever seen, very curly, cut short around her face so that it framed her white face in a beautiful and striking way, and left to grow long in the back. Her eyebrows were thick and carefully plucked, and her mouth bright red; she was the only teacher I had whose lipstick never smeared, who was never ruffled by the antics of the boys in my class. She called me out to the front of the class once, with another handful of classmates, to examine me on the lesson of the day. She taught Romanian language and literature, which was my favorite subject. I did very poorly on this examination although I had studied. I had a stutter (still do) and couldn’t say what I knew. It was a very sunny day, and as I stared out the window struggling for breath and words, I picked at my cuticles so hard that my fingers started bleeding. Later that year I gave her, with great trepidation, my notebook of poems to read. I don’t remember what she said to me about these poems but I was discouraged. In retrospect, I think perhaps she didn’t know what to make of them. They weren’t good poems but they were my heart and soul, and it is no easy thing to be given a child’s heart and soul and find them wanting and yet not say so out of an indistinct feeling that the fact that they are wanting now doesn’t really matter, that what matters is that they be given room to grow.

If it hadn’t been for Professor Gary E.’s world literature class, I would very likely have become an architect. He was my first literature teacher at the community college where I took classes the summer we immigrated here. We read Homer, Virgil, Boethius, Dante and Plato, and even before the semester ended I knew that I had already fallen from grace, that I was going to abandon architecture and take the dangerous path of being a literature major. Professor E. was in his mid-thirties then, shaved his head, and had a bouncy, childish gait, and a sharp, cheering laughter. He had been an initiate in a Catholic monastery but left before he took his vows. I was thoroughly infatuated with him; the mixture of his knowledge of literature and irreverence and monastic past went straight to my head. I made my first American friend in his class; it was she who told me when we were driving to school one day that Professor E. was gay. She was very amused by my utter surprise at this revelation. It took me a long time to recover from this, but when I did the splintered and cracked pieces of my idea of what it meant to be homosexual – an abomination in the eyes of God – could not be put back together again. That was the beginning of my another kind of education for me, that of seeing a person as an individual rather than a member of a group that I was instructed to be afraid of and reject.

His class left me with a desire that has lingered all these many years to go back to the Iliad and Odyssey and read them with the mind and the knowledge I have now, to notice how I have changed in relation to them, and to mull, once again, over that question on the in-class final exam: “Does the universe of Homer’s poems support or contradict King Lear’s lament that, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the the gods; They kill us for their sport.’?”

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


For me, it isn't green, the color of leaves and of water, but deep orange, hot and all-enveloping like a fire. A sort of spontaneous combustion, that is how it comes to me, and it completely disorients me.

I might be reading a really good story a friend has shared with me, or looking at a beautiful mother holding a beautiful child in her arms, or catching a glimpse of an old couple kissing lightly on a park bench by the lake, all things that ordinarily give me a deep and innocent pleasure. And suddenly it strikes me: an intense sadness and nauseating dislike for these other people's talent and intelligence, happiness and affection for one another. I think about my own life and how miserable it seems to me to be and, instead of wondering, like I usually, and wrongly, do, why I can't be more like other people, I ask myself, equally wrongly, why can't other people be like me, stupid and hateful and struggling with failure and with doubt as I am.

What puzzles me the most is that I realized, after some soul searching, that when I'm in the grip of envy I don't want to have these other people's lives, no matter how wonderful they appear. I don't covet; I simply and vehemently and shamefacedly envy. That is to say, what I want is negative: for these other people not to have their own lives, for their talent and happiness to be taken away from them. The universe shifts and I'm in the middle of it and everything has to bear a relationship to me or else it's not worth existing. It's not a matter of my benefiting or suffering in a practical way from this happiness outside of myself. I simply don't want it to exist because I don't want it to exist. Because it's inconvenient to my own sense of myself.

After the fire has spent itself, and I know again who I am, I think: this is the answer. I often ask myself how people can allow themselves to commit acts of irrational and useless cruelty; where does the deep thirst for violence and chaos come from? I am the answer to it, my own capacity for hatred. It knocks the wind out of me to come face to face with it, not in theory, not in the comfortable space of rational thought, but on the battlefield, with swords drawn and mud squelching between bare toes. Nothing civilized about this encounter, and nothing really that can be resolved. I can't imagine any way to train myself not to feel this emotion, and I'm not sure that I want to be able not to feel it. I've become curious about it lately, and that seems to work. Work to accomplish what? I don't quite know. Except that it doesn't hurt and terrify me quite so much as the feeling of envy alone.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wheatstacks and Wordstacks

I stood face to face with it. It. The real thing, signature at bottom left. The canvas touched by his brushes one hundred and sixteen years ago. The pink snow, the pale blue shadows, the ordinary-looking reddish-brown wheat. I stood in front of it and nothing much happened. I was trying to make it happen, stir up some feeling of the sublime somewhere under my breast bone. But I failed. And moved on, carried by the crowd -– to van Gogh’s irises, Degas’s crippled bather, and to El Greco’s crucified body of Christ lit from behind by a grayish white tear in a black sky. All the real thing, and all left my heart cold. It was my mind that was on fire. I kept speaking to myself, silently: this is a Monet; this is a Degas, this is a van Gogh, this is an El Greco. I read ravenously the explicatory notes at the sides of the paintings. I examined the brushstrokes, though I know nothing about brush strokes, thought about the composition of the painting, tried to decipher its symbols. I couldn’t stay in that uncomfortable, chaotic place of simply seeing.

Last Saturday I went to the Getty Museum with my sister. It shakes up my world, going to a museum. There’s such a strange mixture of intensity and lightness –- masterpieces inside, the unbearable weight of beauty, and outside children skipping about, laughter at the café tables, a boy with a t-shirt that reads Hello I’m Trouble, my sister’s head of dark, unruly curls glinting in the sun. The absolutely astounding and the trivial co-existing like this in the space of one morning and one afternoon, in the space of my conscious mind. How to eat potato chips after you’ve seen El Greco’s crucifixion?

My sister went to Italy for two weeks in February. She took about eight hundred pictures. I see this as her way to deal with the sublime that cannot be contained or comprehended. I don’t know how people bear to go on month-long tours of Europe, stuff themselves with culture willy-nilly, the way geese are stuffed with grain to fatten up their livers for foie gras. I don’t understand how a heart and mind can remain whole passing through Paris and Venice, London and Vienna, Madrid and Berlin. Or is this what’s supposed to happen, for the heart and the mind to become unraveled somewhat, for the fragments of yourself to be rearranged after an experience like this?

I’m making my way through the Oxford Book of American Poetry, and the same danger lurks on its pages, of losing your mental footing among the sheer mass of marvelous words. Theodore Roethke writes about “bacterial creepers/Wriggling through wounds/Like elvers in ponds,/Their wan mouths kissing the warm sutures,/Cleaning and caressing,/Creeping and healing.” (“The Minimal”). Not long ago I learned the science of this process, but to see it in a poem, the idea shaped by the rhythm of each line -– that is something worth living for. Elizabeth Bishop writes about wondering, at seven, why she is: “But I felt: you are an I,/you are an Elizabeth,/you are one ofthem./Why should you be one, too?/I scarcely dared to look/to see what it was I was.” (“In the Waiting Room”). I have to remember this when I am sad and nothing seems to matter. It’s not that poetry creates meaning; it’s not that it offers explanations. It just looks intensely, with utmost concentration, at what is, and it says: what is is enough.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cupcakes, Light and Dark

Most of Saturday I baked cupcakes. (Vanilla with lime frosting, and chocolate with chocolate mousse frosting.) And most of Sunday I ate them. It was my sister’s birthday and we had a party of sorts at my parents’ house. I say of sorts because my parents are yet again barely speaking to each other. It is not difficult to wish people you love all the happiness in the world. Most hearts are roomy enough for that, I think. What’s nearly impossible is to let them be happy on their own terms, not to interfere with what they believe with all their might is best for them.

But I wanted to write about cupcakes. I wanted to say, in particular, that it was better to make them than to eat them, and not only because those moist, delicate, sweet bites were so ephemeral, and so inevitably tinged with guilt at indulging myself. Even if I brush aside the guilt and the transitoriness of those moments of pleasure, eating them still doesn’t measure up to the joy of making them. Part of it is that virtuous joy that I feel when I do honest work with my hands. And pat of it is aesthetic pleasure. I got such a high decorating the cupcakes, piping the frosting from a pastry bag, placing tiny white and green sugar flowers on top of the frosting, packing them in special cupcakes boxes I bought from Tall Mouse Crafts, to give to my sister as a birthday present. I very seldom let my guard down enough to feel such simple happiness. That old cliché about the journey being what matters not the destination turns my stomach. But I find myself agreeing with the spirit of it, if not its letter.

These cupcakes have a dark side. Or rather my eating self does, and the cupcakes have simply pulled the mask off its face. Yesterday I ate almost nothing but five cupcakes. And how proud I felt of my ability to refrain from eating anything else; how good deprivation felt, what a sense of release hunger gave me. During the past week I’ve lingered over the idea of losing weight, losing and losing till there’s no more to be lost, daydreamed about it like some princess in a fairy tale about her prince charming. It’s been a treat to get on the scale and find myself a pound or two lighter. Oh, those numbers, their power over me. I am not thin by any stretch of the imagination; I weigh a little over one hundred and forty pounds. I’ve weighed less and I’ve weighed more, but fantasized about losing no matter where on the scale I was. And I want to lose not in order to look a certain way, but just because losing seems to me an end in itself, the ultimate good. Yes, I’ve pondered both the literal and metaphorical meanings of diminishing myself, becoming small, unobtrusive, insignificant. But they don’t matter to me as much as this power I have of shaping my body.

The problem is that this power to shape my body is much smaller, even at its full capacity, than the power I have to shape my mind. I went to a bookstore reading last Thursday; the book being promoted was about life after eating disorders. The author gave an impassioned talk on anorexia; she recounted her personal experience and went over some of the newest scientific research done on eating disorders. I don’t have an eating disorder, but I fantasize about having one. So I went to the reading in order to face the reality of it. And the reality is that an eating disorder isn’t just a harmless hobby – yes, amazingly enough, this is how I think of it – but an enormous emptiness that settles into the center of your life and crushes everything in it that doesn’t have to do with losing weight. I haven’t mentioned death, the grim destination of eating disorders, because what concerns me isn’t so much death, towards which all of us are headed anyway, but how I get there. And I don’t want to get there with my mind befogged by lack of nutrients, unable to enjoy the pleasures of a good book or really good conversation with friends. I don’t want to be absent from what’s happening to me.

So I had breakfast this morning. And a bulgur salad with cucumbers and peppers and mint for lunch, along with fresh bread with Earth Balance. Maybe I will even let myself succumb to this cupcake mania again and bake some cupcakes for dinner. Vanilla with raspberry sauce and, oh, yes, peanut butter with chocolate ganache drizzled on the top.