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.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Looking In

A little ways away from my front door, this:

And very close to me, this:

Reflective, by A.R. Ammons

I found a/ weed/that had a/ mirror in it/and that/ mirror/ looked in at/ a mirror/ in/ me that/ had a/ weed in it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


On Sunday I had an argument with my father. There's a fraction of a second, before any argument gets in full swing, when I realize that the conversation is headed toward conflict and that I can't stop the momentum of the words. My stomach and my breath tighten; I feel the energy of battle coursing through my body from head to toe. This is not a response to the fact that a fight has become inevitable, but that I cannot escape a clash between ideas, no matter how verbally civilized I and my partner in the conflict manage to make it. At bottom, I suppose this is a moment of profound seeing that I am different, and that this difference cannot always be passive. Sooner or later my encounter with the Other is bound to be explosive. It's like putting in close proximity two chemicals that, by their very nature, cannot help but destroy the other.

My relationship with my father isn't volatile; we have too many things in common for that: love of reading and reason, curiosity, perfectionism, a tendency for overwork. One thing we don't agree on (any more) is money, and this is what our argument was about. Its details don't really matter. Often they don't. I've started to see with more and more clarity that arguments are fundamentally about ways of looking at the world -- expressed, of course, in the minutiae of everyday life, but these minutiae are not the problem, only shapes of the problem -- and that once you get to the bottom of this, once you begin to think about what your underlying beliefs about yourself and the world are, that's when the argument either dissolves into nothing or cannot be resolved despite your best intentions. At this level, you cannot change the other person's mind; that kind of change can happen only from within the person herself.

But getting to this point, delving deep enough to reach what's underneath the words or at the very core of the words, is what fascinates and troubles me. It's enormously difficult because it's not simply an intellectual effort that you have to exert. Love of reason isn't enough to save you from anger and resentment and spite. I don't know what to call this other thing that's necessary; it's an intuitive connection, a trust in the other person's good intentions, an affection for him that cannot be explained or quantified. I feel this for my husband, and it's the reason we haven't had a fight in more than five years of marriage despite the fact that we've disagreed fiercely on certain issues. And yet I find, even with him, that the civility of our conversation sometimes hangs by a thread; the emotions run so strong, at least for me, that they almost completely obstruct the ideas we're talking about. These ideas interest me deeply, but it feels as if my brain has no room to process them; all I can think about is: if you really cared about me, you wouldn't have trouble understanding what I'm telling you and seeing that I'm right. It's an absurd thought and yet it feels more real to me at the moment than anything else.

I think what I'm trying to say is that it's impossible to take emotion away from language. Even behind the most dispassionate writing or speaking there's a thinking mind, a tangled fabric of experience -- thought and feeling together -- that the written or spoken words inevitably carry inside them. Sometimes they do so with grace, sometimes clumsily, sometimes shrewdly, sometimes artlessly. But by necessity words are imbued with the tangibles and intangibles of what it means to be a person separate from other persons.

This is the reason -- what a relief to finally see it -- why it's so hard for me to believe that my writing here matters to someone other than me. It's also the reason why some poems make me shake with fear as much as love. They speak to the Other as if she weren't the Other. Inside such poems impassable barriers are passed. I wonder if this is why very few people read poetry. Words stop being just signs on the page, sounds in the air. They get at you. They bring you back to yourself. They force you to see yourself as one, alone, in the vastness of the universe, standing next to many other ones, also alone. And yet they establish a connection; they spin a momentary web in which all these many lonelinesses are tied to one another. I wonder if they do so not only with their words but the silence that their words break. In my experience, nowhere is silence as present among words as in a poem. It's as if speaking the poem is not the point, only a prelude to the silence that comes after.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I want to know everything. The nature of imaginary numbers, how Saturn-shaped black holes form in the depths of interstellar space, the histories of pueblo Indians, how to solve differential equations, Norse mythology, chaos theory, cytology, how to apply the Second Law of Thermodynamics, about women in the Medieval Ages, how to read music, etymology, the habits of orangutans in the rain forests of Sumatra, how to read Sanskrit, biochemistry, how to determine if a sylogism is correct or incorrect, about illuminated manuscripts, how the first Encyclopedia came to be published. Not least, I want to now why I want to know all these things, what this fire is that burns in my belly and that can be fed only by the pleasure of finding things out, as Richard Feynman puts it, only by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

The down-to-earth, goodie-two-shoes part of my mind immediately raised her skinny finger and warned me: Curiosity killed the cat. Oh, I said. And I went – calmly, I want to say, but it wasn’t calmly but with my insides roiling, partly with shame, partly with indignation – to the bookshelf and pulled out the dictionary of phrase origins. I wanted to know what precisely the phrase meant, and whether its meaning had ever shifted with its use over the centuries. I didn’t find what I was looking for. No surprise there. The scope of that book is very limited. I knew that. But my first instinct when confronted with skepticism or doubt is to reach for a book, both to quiet myself down and to figure out what mistake in thinking I’ve made. Time for plan B, then: I got on the computer and plunged head first into Wikipedia.

First, a bit of etymology. That’s my other instinct when I’m faced with the unknown: to look up the origin of its name. So: curiosity comes from the Old French word curios, which itself comes from the (of course) Latin curiosus, which means careful, and whose root word is cura, care, closer in sense to “cure,” to “take care of,” rather than “worry.” The root word cura turns out to be important, because the first occurrence in print of the expression “curiosity killed the cat” is in a different form: “Care killed the cat.” It was used first by Ben Jonson in a 1598 play: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.” And since we’re talking firsts here, Shakespeare must needs make an appearance too of course: “What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care,” from Much Ado About Nothing, 1599. (I love the spare, balanced structure of this line.) In both these cases, “care” is used in the sense of “worry” or “sorrow.” I find it fascinating that care used in this way turns out to be the predecessor of curiosity. The phrase as we know it, with its didactic, cautionary tone, is attributed to Eugene O’Neill who used it in his play Diff’rent in 1920. (There's a pattern here that I haven't really thought about: the play seems to be the thing.)

There, then, are the facts. What to make of them? For one thing, I think it matters enormously what you’re curious about. It matters if you want to know what your feisty neighbors had their argument about late last night, or if you're curious about why the moon always shows the Earth only one side of its face. At the risk of making too much out of the etymology of the word, I will go so far as to say that it matters what meaning of curiosity you cling to: the “cure” or the “worry.” This makes sense to me because my experience of curiosity is expansiveness, purposefulness and joy, and almost never of danger, of the walls of the world closing in on me. (I feel the latter when I succumb to gossip.)

Curiosity not only hasn't killed this cat – yours truly – but it has given her life. In my darkest hour, the possibility of finding things out, of learning something I didn’t know before, if about nothing else than my own desperation, is the only valid reason that I can discern not to take my life. The question of whether or not life is worth living is a profoundly valid one. It’s not, and shouldn’t be, a luxury to ask it, but a requirement. Camus makes this point in his essays about the absurd. He gives a more complicated answer to it than I am capable of fully comprehending. My version of his answer is that, meaningless or not, life is worth living because of where the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing can take you. That’s a place I want to go.

Diary of Idleness: reading Borges, Labyrinths; Gullberg, Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers; and as usual Vikram Seth. Cooking: kale with tempeh. Listening to: Grieg, Peer Gynt.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Diary of Idleness

I thought I should keep a diary. It would have to be the diary of a flaneuse -- I am indebted to Djuna Barnes both for the feminine form of flaneur and for this drawing of three harlequins -- of someone who has no significant worth in the world economy, who is a free agent in the broadest and most unsettling sense of the word (because when you find yourself up in the air, wings or no wings, the first and most pressing thought is that of falling), with no sense of responsibility except for herself, her own moral life. She has opted out of the usual roles of career woman, parent, upright citizen. In all the ways that matter to the outside world she is nobody.

Why shouldn't she/I take up this name -- Nobody with a capital N -- for her own, consciously and not without a tiny bit of the trickster spirit of Odysseus when he's battling the Cyclops? Why not laugh at myself? It's the easiest way to be honest, doing it tongue-in-cheek.

Here's the first entry for her/my diary of idleness: (My parents wonder. They say to me, in airy asides when we talk on the phone during the week: we didn't call you until noon because we weren't sure you were awake. Well, I was. I am.): the many faces of nothing.

Read: about chromosomes and genetic inheritance (biology textbook); about the end of the war as we (used to) know it, plagiarism (scandalous tidbit: sentences from Ian McEwan's novel Atonement were plagiarized from a woman's diaries), urban sprawl, the mathematician Euler (a rare embodiment of the genius as a kind, untortured, generous human being), Henry James' dependence on the sound of his typewriter in the creative process, and the fact that the word "ye" as in "Ye Old Donut Shoppe," is an old spelling of "the" (Wilson Quarterly); another fifty out of the fifteen hundred pages of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.

Watched television: Nigella Bites (or Feasts, forget which) with a silly grin on my face, mesmerized by her beauty, disappointed (but not disappointed that I was disappointed) by the food; and two episodes of Northern Exposure on DVD, which started me thinking about Nobody in the first place, about the protean quality of identity, and uncertainty, and the meaning of my everyday life.

Stared out of window. Thought. Meditated. Ran out to the grocery store for kale, squash, rose water, green onions, basil, yeast, mustard seeds.

Cooked dinner, which is a special pleasure especially when I get out a bunch of my cookbooks and scatter them, open and propped against one another, on half of all the available surfaces in the kitchen. While cutting basil into chiffonade for the pasta salad (whole wheat fusilli, sun-dried tomato pesto), I sliced off the tip of my left thumb. There it was, on the cutting board, a pinkish-gray flake of flesh, a bit of myself. That freaked me out more than the blood, of which there was plenty. Ate dinner. Couldn't resist finishing off the lemon cookies -- sweet and sour and salty and crisp -- that I had baked on Saturday morning.

Well, there it is. I've come clean, made my confession, given proof of my utter uselessness, my lack of ambition to make the world a better place for my passing through it. Is there anything wrong with that?

Monday, April 02, 2007


This year I had the best April 1st joke played on me. Time did it. Rather late on Sunday morning I woke up and went downstairs as usual to make my tea. By the time I got to the kitchen time had moved back one hour. I left my tea things and rushed back up to the bedroom to check the clock. Time was back to normal again. And then it occurred to me: the first Sunday in April is Daylight Savings Time day. The bedroom clock is the only clock in the house programmed for the old change and automatically shifted its way forward as it was compelled by its inner machinery to do. I punched its buttons and synchronized it with the rest of the clocks in the house. Then I trotted cheerfully downstairs to finish making my tea, an hour the richer and wiser.