Posted on August 28, 2015
I’m writing to you from the floor. My first week in California has been exhilarating and extraordinary, even if I’m taking conference calls from the carpet and using aluminum foil as a dinner plate. As of right now my furniture is still in a warehouse in New York, and I’m trying this new thing where I don’t flip out when things don’t go according to plan because it takes more energy to be a screaming asshole than it is to resolve situations with grace and calm. I spent the morning talking to the very kind and helpful head of sales at Shlepper’s and I’m hopeful that my furniture will arrive within the next week. But given how beautiful my apartment is, I’m thinking my situation is more like glamping with an added benefit of Some Assembly Required. I’m thankful for Taskrabbit since assembling furniture is a skill that eludes me. Part of me is strangely happy to be living so minimally and save my books, I kind of dread the 49 boxes that will soon find their way home.
“I was never a fan of people who don’t leave home…It just seems part of your duty in life.” –Joan Didion
Someone recently asked me what it’s like living in California, to which I responded, I don’t know, really. It’s only been a week. All I have are vague, strong impressions–kind of like skywriting–that I’m sure will fade and morph into something tangible, real. Perhaps I’ll have a better answer in six month’s time. But right now I know that the light here is clean, that I’ve been starved for common courtesy and decency–characteristics that are the stock and trade of most Californians, or at least the ones I’ve encountered so far. I know I’ll have to get a car at some point, but it’s been nice walking the four miles to Brentwood. I finally know what it’s like to have a good avocado and a ripe white peach. What it’s like to eat healthy–all. the. time. I know what it’s like to sit next to a group of people and have them fold you into their conversation so soon your two tables become one. I know what it’s like to wake to quiet; I live by the beach and it feels good to be close to water. I wrote someone this week, I’m never coming back.
This week I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been and the most frightened I’ve ever been. By definition, everything is new to me, and all the things I’ve taken for granted–close friends, a strong professional network, and my family, all close by–I realize I have to, in some way, rebuild. I’m painfully shy but I’ve thrown myself into Facebook groups, scheduled “friend dates” with friends of friends (vetted strangers, really), and reconnected with people from a former life–people I used to know. There’s a lit scene here and I’m nervous about navigating it (although I’m admittedly curious). It’s hard making friends when you’re over a certain age since people are settled, but I hope to find my way here. Build my tribe.
I wake to a pile of email from the East Coast, which alters the shape of my days. But mostly I wake, shell-shocked. I live in California. At one point I’ll have to get a license and drive a car (not sure how I’ll afford one, but I’ll cross that bridge…) I wonder if I’ll be lonely. I wonder if I’ll find project work. I wonder what I’ll write on this space. I wonder when my furniture will arrive so I’ll no longer have to take my meals and calls from the floor.
Everything: I’m working on it.
Posted on August 23, 2015
Cannot the labourers understand that by over-working themselves they exhaust their own strength and that of their progeny, that they are used up and long before their time come to be incapable of any work at all, that absorbed and brutalized by this single vice they are no longer men but pieces of men, that they kill within themselves all beautiful faculties, to leave nothing alive and flourishing except the furious madness for work. –Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy (1883)
We live in an age where being busy is lauded. Popular thinkers craft lists on how you can cram more into a single day. Others publish books on how to get shit done–how to use technology as a means of saving time because the cruelest crime we could commit would be to squander it. A New Yorker cartoon shows two children negotiating thirty minutes of playtime. Consulting their crammed calendars, they resolve to reshuffle, re-jigger until they can secure a slot two weeks from that day when they can actually breathe. This puts me to thinking of my friends, how we always bemoan that we’re overbooked, double-booked, and maybe I can see you next month for a coffee?
There was a time when I worked sixteen-hour days. When weeks would pass and my only glimpse of the light was during a midday coffee break, when I’d race down the street to refuel to only sit at my desk and stare at a computer screen. I worked to have my food delivered, my groceries that invariably spoiled, delivered, to have books that went unread, delivered. Over the course of four years I gained 40 pounds and became a lesser version of myself. I was always tired, forever tethered to my phone–I was the one who missed the great moments in my friend’s lives–but you can understand, right? It’s work. I’ve so much to do. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to regard time differently–to balance fast and slow. That spending hours making a meal instead of having it delivered, or going for a walk when I could easily take the subway, meant something. So when a friend recommended Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness–a book published in 2004 but is completely valid now, I set aside the stack and devoted time to understand the danger of mindless speed.
From Slow food and workouts to alternative medicine and guided meditation, to meeting people who huddle across the globe as a means of learning how to sit in a place of calm amidst a storm, Honoré doesn’t rally for a device-free era or for us to pick up and create our own version of Walden, rather he espouses ways in which we can manage pieces of our life in a slower way as a means of deeper connection and a more meaningful quality of life. He was inspired to research the art of Slow when he read an article about one-minute bedtime stories. For a moment he was excited because he could read his son stories and get back to work fairly quickly, and then he paused and realized he was completely insane for valuing saving time to get away from his child. The book is not an exploration of time but a personal journey for the author to chill out. I think all of us could relate, because who isn’t shocked/not-shocked by Amazon’s Darwinian work culture? Who hasn’t realized that cramming more in has the opposite effect, that at one point we suffer the law of diminishing returns? We’re spent, feeling as if our breath, and everything along with it, has been stolen from our body.
Sometimes I feel weird for living a slower-paced life because everyone around me is about now. Respond to that email now. Put out that client fire now. But it was only when I took a trip with the objective of doing absolutely nothing did I start a novel that two years later would find a publisher. It was only when I put my phone away during time spent with dear friends did I mend broken friendships. And it was only when I sat in a new home, thousands of miles from the place I’ve always called home, did I have the idea of a new story–something strange and dystopian, kind of like “Black Mirror”.
Because I don’t believe anything exists after we pass on. So why not live the best way we know how? I’m done with putting off my happiness for a later date as a means of sacrificing it now because what if there is no later date? A week ago I found out through Facebook that someone I know slightly died. Suddenly, at 35. It’s not fair, I thought. Wrong, I felt. A few days ago I met up with a close friend who shows me a tattoo she had done in remembrance of a friend who died suddenly this summer of a brain aneurysm. A man who was taken too soon from his wife and two children.
My friend’s tattoo reads: There is no time. So I try to follow Paul Jarvis’s advice and stop doing shit I don’t like. Operative word being try.
This summer I discovered so many wonderful books. Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise is a hilarious story about a couple who honeymoons in paradise to soon discover the waters are teeming with mermaids. Millet is a hero of mine because she’s able to draw wry, acerbic women as easily as she is in creating a canvas filled with broken people. From the moment I read My Happy Life, I was hooked, and what makes her latest book remarkable is the fact that it’s so absurd it’s almost real. Imagine what would happen if you were celebrating the start of a new life with someone amidst greed, television crew, marine biologists, and Japanese web celebrities–all over a few measly mermaids?
I picked up Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper while waiting for my friend Summer. Another marriage, another trip–a story of two odd people who trek across Northern Europe examining love, fidelity, friendship, desire–all while transforming into unlikely eco-terrorists. The writing is sharp, crisp and funny. Often times you never get to truly glimpse the innards of a marriage–you believe the life your friends represent–but rarely do we hear about the work. Rarely do you hear the whisper of: maybe you’re not enough. Maybe we’re together because we’re terrified of being alone.
“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” — Adam Phillip’s On Kindness
While Adam Phillip’s philosophical and historical examination of the history of kindness is slim, it took me nearly a month to complete. Phillips analyzes kindness through the lens of faith, folklore, psychology and literature. Why are we kind? Are we kind merely as a means of serving our own self interests? What is true selflessness and altruism? And what happens to a child when they experience their first hurt, what if our parents aren’t as kind as we think they should be, what then? It hurts when someone is unkind to you but in the same measure we’re able to rationalize our unkindness. On Kindness serves up more questions than it delivers answers, and I walked away from it wondering how I could be kinder in my everyday life. Can I stop myself from making snap judgments of people? Am I able to pause and meet someone’s anger with calm and kindness as a means of quelling someone else’s rage.
It occurs to me that this summer I spent a lot of time dissecting marriage of all kinds–from the familial to the friendship (as I believe we are, in a way, bound to those whom we care about even if not in the legal sense). I think about kindness, honesty and kin, and when my friend Molly sent me this article about a woman who discovered, as an adult, that she was half-black, it put me to thinking about how I’m able to reconcile discovering, last year, that I’m part black. While watching “Little White Lie,” I empathized with Lacey’s story, and admired her bravery in bringing out the truth. That’s my hair, I thought. And like Lacey, I often wonder where I fit. How I identify myself. How I define blackness for myself when I’ve always self-identified as white and possibly something other? I’m privileged in the sense that I have so many wonderful friends who have embraced me and offered up advice on how they define blackness for themselves, and how I can find my own way to it. I’m also acutely aware of my white privilege and how that affords me trespass to places where others can’t go. How I can use that to be an ally. More on this soon.
Now that I’m in my new home, I can finally wade my way through the stack. Up next is Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Poems) because he’s a surgeon with the English language, Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut and Other People (Stories) because her first lines slay, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me because it should be required reading, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion because Joan Didion, and the final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series.
What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations for what I can add to the stack?
Posted on July 17, 2015
Just a brief note to share that I’m taking a break from the blog to focus on work, a new writing project, and spending time with my friends and father before I leave for California. I’ll be back in a month with recipes, book recommendations, freelance roundtables and bits from my new life out west. All my love, f.
Posted on July 16, 2015
I’ve never been the sort of person who drops their bags and collapses into bed. I’ve never left dirty dishes in the sink and it normally takes me at most three hours to unpack from a move. So when I came home late last night, depleted from 20 hours of travel across multiple time zones, the first thing I did was unpack. And clean. And play with my cat into the wee hours of the morning. Because I can’t bear the smell of suitcase clothes and books slightly marred from a journey–I need to go to bed knowing everything has been set to rights. I acknowledge my Type A-tendencies and I’ve accepted that I’ll likely always be this way.
This morning I woke at dawn, disoriented, forgetting that I was in New York and it was only my cat sleeping soundly beside me that made me realize that I am here. I am in this temporary home. My head’s not quite right yet, and I’ve accepted that over the next week I’ll endure the special kind of torture that only jetlag from Asia can bring.
What gave me joy this morning was poring over my newly-acquired books. There was a time when I used to hoard up on souvenirs–knick knacks and the like from my travels. However, over the past five years I’ve stopped buying, started experiencing, and now the only treasures I bring home are of the book variety. I tend to pick up books from local authors or titles that remind me of my journey.
While in Singapore, my friend Denise pointed me to Books Actually, now my favorite independent bookstore in the WORLD. Although I missed the resident felines (insert emphatic wail), I spent a few hours in this small shop marveling over the titles. Denise shared that Asian publishers place a premium on a book’s presentation and design–even for the most literary of titles. As I thumbed through photography books on loneliness and poetry anthologies, I stumbled on a host of titles from the bookstore’s resident imprint, Math Paper Press.
Believe me when I say the poems are GOOD.
Whenever I’m in-between projects or in need of inspiration, I turn to music and good poetry–both of which place weight on the economy of words. Words are workhorses in both disciplines, and I’ll often get story ideas, titles or images from a single line of poetry. My purchases did not disappoint. I purchased Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light (my favorite, by far), Occupational Hazards, We Were Always Eating Expired Things (the title, alone. I MEAN), and Objects of Affection.
You should know I considered buying this book. I’ll likely pull the trigger now that I don’t have to worry about baggage weight.
While in Singapore, I watched a lot of NatGeo Asia, and I fell in love with this quirky couple. When they weren’t bickering, they were making sumptuous food and I’ve since ordered their cookbook. I also secured my friend Denise’s extraordinary cookbook cum food narratives, Kitchen Stories, and scored the latest Rachel Khoo. Know that I’ll be making great food from these books in the coming weeks!
Now excuse me while I pass out in front of my computer.
Posted on July 12, 2015
Ever since I was small I was aware of my body, of the weight of it. You’re healthy, my mother would say every time I complained of being fat, grabbing folds of skin and offering it up as evidence. I was the opposite of healthy, feasting on cans of Chef Boyardee, fried cutlets and buttery potatoes, Little Debbie cakes and bags of cheese doodles–but this was Brooklyn in the 1980s where one didn’t contemplate salads and farm-to-table fare. We ate what we could afford. We ate what was put in front of us and we didn’t complain about it. Back then it was normal to have hot dogs from the vendor in Sunset Park for lunch and plantain chips as a snack. It would normal to consume plastic bottles of grape juice because they only cost a quarter. I abhorred vegetables: slimy string beans steeped in metal cans, iceberg lettuce reminiscent of wet paper. If given the choice I would prefer my chicken fried, pizza greasy, and my chocolate mini-cakes sealed in industrial-strength plastic bags.
Pair my penchant for eating anything in a 5-block radius with a body intent on an early bloom, and I soon discovered there would come days when I didn’t want to leave the house. Days when I’d cover my chest with my arms while boys in the pool beckoned me to come closer. I wasn’t pretty like the other girls, but that body. That body could take you places. That body was an invitation for the swarm to advance. That body scored you free loosies and tickets inside an air conditioned movie theater.
Back then, I was the body who read books. Part of me wondered where had that skinny child gone off to? The girl who chewed at the ends of her hair when she was scared? The girl who was all sharp edges and congruent angles. When would she return? Would she recognize the girl standing in front of her, all swelled breasts and expansive hips? Would the body make the child run?
Sometimes I look at those photos and think: take me back. Take me back before the body, before cocaine, before the drink, before a heart forever cloaked in black and mourning. When I didn’t fear everything that followed in my wake.
How is it that we only know now how wonderful it was then?
The summer before junior high school I spent my days swimming from one end of the 16-ft pool in Sunset Park to the other. For hours. Rarely did I eat, and before long I ignored the hunger pangs in favor of a body that had whittled down to bone. Because the business of body was a distraction (why bother listening to what I said or the words I wrote when soft, swelling skin was infinitely more appealing?), and I would do anything to winnow it down, to disappear. Don’t raise your voice; don’t make a sound, I urged any part of me that had threatened to be fertile, to grow.
Over the next decade I waged at outright war on my body. I toyed with purging for years but couldn’t get it right because I feared getting caught. More importantly, I feared choking. Even then I feared time, knew that there would be a moment when I’d slumber back to the dark country from which I’d come, and no way did I want to toy with the clock.
Not eating had its drawbacks too–I couldn’t concentrate and I didn’t have the discipline to ignore the heaping piles of iced cinnamon buns or Otis Spunkmeyer cookies fresh out of the microwave oven. So I was left to binge and feel a kind of hatred toward myself that I can’t put into words. It’s the kind of hate where you feel you deserve nothing. You close your eyes when the boys hurl crumbled paper over your head and taunt you in the hallway because your hair betrays your skin. You’re white, but not really, and this sets everyone’s teeth on edge. They hate you because you’re smarter, different. They hate you because there’s still a remnant of the Spanish lilt to your voice that you can’t quite shake–even though your Brooklyn friends shake their heads and pronounce you white. You are forever white and not white, and you think possibly this is your penance. Maybe petty cruelty is what you deserve for being a thick girl caught in the betweens.
College is kind of like training wheels for real life, and in real life everyone wants to be a thin bride. Sure, we’ll earn our advanced degrees and have our careers, but really we want to be desired. Really, we want to be thin. So I spent the greater part of college dressing to attract men who either respected me too much to sleep with me or didn’t want to play the boyfriend game because I hadn’t yet slept with anyone (I realize now how lucky I was to have been surrounded by men who sincerely didn’t want to take advantage of me). These were men in my study groups; these were men with whom I competed for internships at prestigious investment banks. These were men who’d hookup with women who were uncomplicated. In response, I’d drink until I saw black, wondering if I were thin would this be an issue?
When I graduated college, I was alone. My best friend decided to study law back in Connecticut, and everyone who I cared about either moved out of New York or busied themselves with their new, post-collegiate lives. I took a fancy job at a prestigious bank and it would take me three years to leave an industry I so fervently despised. During that time I became a kind of thin that bordered on uncomfortable. Every day I ran 7-10 miles in the sand or on the treadmill and subsisted on Lean Cuisine meals, Starbucks and bottles of red wine. I was that asshole who complained about lack of integer sizing in the dressing room. I was that woman who loathed being photographed, who couldn’t stand to look at herself in the mirror even though the motley lot chorused, you’re beautiful! you’re so thin! It would take me a decade to detangle health and beauty from a pant size. It would take me fifteen years to understand that my worth was not tethered to a scale. It would take me 18 years to look back at that frail woman and want to seize her, shake her, and say, you were wrong. About all of it.
You deserve the world and everything in it. You deserve nothing less than extraordinary.
Four years ago I came to Bali depleted. I was working for a man I didn’t respect, much less like, and I allowed my work to devour me whole. My mentor had to buy me a plane ticket and remove access to my email because my behavior scared him. I was irrational, insecure and unhinged and while my boss only cared about the money I brought into the company my mentor said, on your deathbed, are you going to regret the days you didn’t spend in the office or the days you lost to it because you weren’t with the ones you love? I understood him enough to board a plane but it wouldn’t truly internalize until last year. Until I made several conscious decisions to choose me over a paycheck.
I spent much of my adult life uncomfortably thin, obsessive over my weight, and two years into the job that would slowly undo me, I ballooned. While in Bali I started to confront the fact that nothing fit; I was squirming in my own skin, violently uncomfortable with my chest size. I remember writing about this, my anguish, and although I can’t find the post I know that I wanted all the wrong things. I wanted to be thin again. I wanted the body to edge out of the frame, to disappear.
Who knew it would take precisely two years from that trip to realize that I was living a life that was slowly killing me? That I was no longer driven by greed? That I wanted to live a life of my own design? That year was one of the worst I’ll know because in the span of a few months I left my job, my beloved Sophie grew sick and died, and I relapsed. Who knew that this journey into the dark, the deep, deep dark, would deliver me into light?
Over the past year I’ve detailed, at length, my journey back to health. This journey isn’t about gluten or weight loss or Sakara Life, it’s about regarding my body as a house I’m no longer interested in torching. The past year has been about ripping off the bandaids and dealing with anxiety head-on and not using food as I once abused alcohol and drugs–as an anesthetic. This year has been about shifting my mindset to healthy and strong rather than thin, small. And while there’s nothing wrong with being thin, that’s no longer my endgame. Small is no longer an end state, a reward.
The past year has been about me rewording sentences. About me complimenting someone and not immediately following with, did you lose weight? You lost weight! This year has been about me being more comfortable in my own skin.
I’m turning 40 this year and it’s strange. I don’t feel the weight of my years although I am starting to see signs of age on my face, hands, and body. Yesterday, while searching for the image I posted during my previous trip to Bali, I got lost in a Flickr rabbit hole and I discovered photos from my 20s, a time when I was beautiful and didn’t know it. Couldn’t see past my own self-loathing. Back then I could only see a body from which I sought escape–all I wanted was the glass of wine in arm’s reach. The sorrow I felt during those hours was deep, raw and real. Look at the time I squandered pillaging myself. Look at all those years lost not seeing the complete beauty that inhabited me, a beauty that inhabits everyone.
Anyone who knows me and knows me well knows that I hate being photographed. It’s also rare you’ll find me in a bathing suit, exhibiting skin. So know that I agonized posting this photo of me in a swimsuit for hours. DAYS. Because it’s less about me being in the actual suit but rather me seeing me in said suit and being okay with it. That I can look at a photograph of myself without immediately dissecting it. Without feeling the need to delete it, delete me.
Half a life ago I drunkenly asked a man to write what I thought was chaos on my body. Yes, I’ve a tattoo and I oddly don’t regret it. Although I’ve learned that the symbol doesn’t mean chaos, I think about what it means to write on your own body. To leave indelible marks. And while I don’t regret the act of getting a tattoo, I regret the intention I laid out for myself. Perhaps I should have written: you will become old and your body will thicken and soften and that is okay because this is your one life and you deserve it, all of it.
Posted on July 11, 2015
Sometimes these questions arise most urgently only because you are the one instigating the move. If some employer or relative or force of nature compelled you to move, then you’d just do it and get it done. Sometimes it helps to adapt as if one has no choice other than to adapt. It’s a way of snipping ties and burning bridges quickly, without dragging that big bag of Looking Back behind you. That said, I remember the time it was finally real that I was moving out of Michigan, and I felt like I was seeing my hometown for the first time. It felt like preemptive nostalgia. I think this is also the nature of sensitive creative types. We just feel everything too damn much. So keep writing about it so you can keep perspective. Obstacles are smaller when you dream bigger. —my always wise, always thoughtful friend, David, in response to me writing about my fear of leaving.
I held off signing my lease for days because committing myself to a new home for the next fifteen months became all too real. I got surgical with the contract, posed endless questions, and this morning I woke to the last of my seemingly endless inquiries met with cheerful, patient responses, and I signed a 42-page electronic document that would put me on a plane to Los Angeles in less than a month.
This is the part in the story when I become terrified. When I feel like the call is coming from inside the house (to quote my friend Amber). When it seems as if I’m the star of my own horror movie. This is the moment in the story where fear registers high, and even though I’m 8,615 miles from Los Angeles and 10,125 miles from New York, I want to crawl under my covers and scream into pillows.
However, I refrain, fearful that my fancy Balinese hotel would charge extra for the outcry.
The year before I left for college, I took a cross-country trip to meet a pen-pal, Leilani. We exchanged letters where we wrote at length about our affection for hip hop, and how we felt as if we were tourists in our own skin. She was Hawaiian, forever perceived as a chola; I attended a predominately all-white high school where I was an outcast, considered an other because of the disconnect between my unruly, kinky hair and my pale skin. I was white but not really, and in a high school where my classmates thought black people were ball players, rappers or criminals, I was often met with confusion, fear and disgust. Leilani and I issued countdowns for our respective escapes (she was 19 and finally had enough money saved to move out, while I was college-bound) and we decided to spend a week together celebrating in Los Angeles.
Boarding a plane at 17–at a time when I considered Long Island another continent in comparison to Brooklyn, where I’d grown up–was inconceivable. I didn’t even know how to buy a plane ticket and I refused to hand over my life to a giant flying machine suspended in midair. Flying was out of the question–who had all this money for a ticket that was the equivalent of riding the Cyclone, but elevated thousands of feet from the ground?–so I took a series of trains into the city to purchase a Greyhound ticket.
The trip took three days. Until then I’d never left the city perimeter, so I was in awe of the accents I’d only seen played out on television. Mouths made the strangest sounds. People said pop instead of soda, and regarded New York as a place where people got maimed and murdered. A man boarded the bus in Wisconsin smelling of sweat and coconut oil, and regaled me with his tales of being a male escort. I changed seats. In Montana, a woman boarded and cried for two hours, occasionally banging her head softly against the window–but not too loud as I suspected she’d get kicked off the bus for bringing crazy. I clutched my bookbag to my chest. The rest stops stenched of bleach blended with urine and air conditioning, and I’d enter diners, bleary-eyed and exhausted, and feast on cinnamon buns or charred, buttered toast–whatever my meager pocket money afforded me. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles, all I wanted was a shower in silence.
Back then the only word I could use to describe my initial reaction to Los Angeles was sprawling. The roads were winding and seemingly endless. Numbered streets didn’t exist–there was no rhyme or reason for intersections and thoroughfares. Where were all the people? Why were the streets wiped clean of them? Had my post-apocalyptic fears come to pass? People don’t walk, they drive, Leilani offered in response. In Los Angeles, we were forever in a car, always on a freeway. In New York we wouldn’t think twice about walking miles to a movie theater or a pool, however, in California you turned on the engine to move a few feet.
Yesterday I’m reminded of this when my guide takes me to the temple at Batukaru. Built on the slope of Mount Batukaru to ward off evil spirits, the climb up is windy, arduous, and my guide tells me that during sacred holidays cars are verboten. Everyone must make the journey up by foot! His voice registers a quiet kind of horror. I regard our differing perspectives: how he shivers in the 70 degree chill and considers a trek uphill as a form of torture while I’m willing to take the mountain air and hill like sacrament. Several times during our walk along the lush terraces of The Jatiluwih Rice Fields, my attentive guide inquires whether I’d like to pause, if it’s all too much. I want to say it’s not too much, it’s never enough, but he wouldn’t understand because what I can and cannot endure at this moment has little to do with rice paddies. Instead I tell him that I’m fine, everything’s okay. Let’s keep moving.
This is my life, I think. Forever fine. Forever moving.
I watch monkeys and how swiftly they move. How the mother carries her young as she flees into the trees, deep into the green. I watch fathers sift through hair and skin to ferret out burrowed ticks and bugs. Everyone is in the business of care and protection. And then I see a lone monkey (first image, above). He’s small, agile and resistant of the slightest gesture of affection. When other monkeys approach (and you can tell it’s with trepidation), this one scurries away, climbs up a tree. Watching from above. When he’s assured that danger in the form of attention no longer exists, he climbs down and watches the other monkeys playing, as if a self-made partition exists between them. My local guide dismisses this monkey, calls him antisocial, and I disagree.
I think he’s scared. I think he has a great deal to protect. Why else would he build a fortress around his heart?
My friend David serves as my occasional moral compass. Years ago, he called me out for expressing anger over the ingratitude of others I’ve mentored. With calm and clarity he told me that my intentions weren’t whole and honest because I’d delivered kindness with the expectation of something in return. Instead, we should give kindness simply to give it without any desire for reciprocation. Karma will care for us in the end, he said, and I fervently believe this. While we haven’t seen one another in years, whenever he writes me I pause, read and reflect. I treat his words with care because they come from a place of complete selflessness. Somehow he always manages to inspire clarity and calm whenever I’m flailing. I deeply admire him this–his propensity for reflection and honesty. A few days ago I posted a flippant comment (half-joking, half-serious because this is how I manage discomfort–I swathe it in forced gaiety) about being terrified of leaving. I had all the questions. I’m signing a lease for an expensive apartment–will I be able to pay for it for 15 months? I’m thousands of miles away from my closest friends–will I sustain those relationships while cultivating new ones, even as an introvert? Will I get over my fear of driving and get in a car? Will I become one of those people who complain about walking a mile? (oh dear god, I hope not) Will I finally be in a place where I can fall deliriously in love? Will my cat survive the plane ride? (yes, of course, of course, but I’m panicking nonetheless. I imagine Cesar Millan wouldn’t be pleased) How will I pay for the insane $3K+ it costs to move my stuff from one home to another (do you believe it’s this expensive!)? And on it goes.
Hours later, I scan Facebook and pause when I see David’s comment:
Sometimes these questions arise most urgently only because you are the one instigating the move. If some employer or relative or force of nature compelled you to move, then you’d just do it and get it done. Sometimes it helps to adapt as if one has no choice other than to adapt. It’s a way of snipping ties and burning bridges quickly, without dragging that big bag of Looking Back behind you.
Somehow this puts me to thinking of my relationship to alcohol. There was a time when my significant relationship was with a bottle of red wine because it was my one constant, the one thing that would never leave. I needed this permanence and the way alcohol blurred the edges of things. I spent most of my adult life numb until I woke up one day, fed up, aching to actually FEEL something. Quitting the drink felt like bandaids ripping off. The pain was that real and acute but I dealt with it. With the passing of each day, I rationed, it had to get easier. The once-throbbing pain would dull and I would only suffer the occasional pang. As it turns out, I was right, and looking back on my life I’ve so much regret that I spent it anaesthetized. I’d much rather have endured the hurt–all of it–because it’s temporary and the light always rises up to meet you once you’ve crossed over to the other side of sorrow.
So I imagine moving from my home, all that is familiar, is much like this. A burn, a sting that will invariably heal.
Right now I have $0 in my bank account because I’ve paid off much of my debt and I’ve checks to deposit (thank god). Right now I’ve booked a one-way ticket, have given notice to my current landlord, and will spend tomorrow comparing rates from various moving companies while perched in front of The Indian Ocean. I will push through this and feel the bandaids ripping off, one by one. I will feel it. I will write about it. I will get through it. I have to believe there’s something just right beyond my reach, on the other side.
We just feel everything too damn much. So keep writing about it so you can keep perspective.
Posted on July 9, 2015
I believe, if you wear the Balinese clothes, you will be very beautiful. Because you have the good skin, the white skin, my guide says, pointing to the masses of women in the street preparing offerings for Galungan, the most sacred of Balinese Hindu holidays. The women wear folds of silk and satin in vermillion, sanguine red and yellow while they weave together blooms and wave incense. Some wear blue the color of certain skies as they prepare jaja, a Balinese fried rice cake. I’m quiet for a moment because I realize the deception my skin bears, and the privilege it affords me. I tell him the women are beautiful just as they are, and I’d hope that I would be the same not because my skin is the color of parchment, but because my heart is one where the good parts of me (dharma) smother the darker parts (adharma).
My guide, whose name translates to swastika in the Sanskrit, apologizes often. He offers regret over the enormous step I have to take when coming out of the car or if there’s traffic in the one road that snakes through much of Ubud. At one point I tell him that he’s nothing to be sorry for, he’s done nothing wrong, and he looks both startled and relieved. We spend most of our day winding around the Northeast part of Bali, visiting Mount Batur and feasting on sweet oranges from the groves that crowd the mountain while men sell adorable furry dogs locked in cages and chidren hock local fruit. We visit the Gunung Lebah Temple where I watch scores of tourists cleanse themselves in the purification waterfalls while the Balinese in traditional garb smoke cigarettes and attach themselves to their phones, texting, game-playing, Facebooking. I hike the grass covered Tegalalang Rice Terrace steps and weave in and out of dozens of shops known for intricate wood carvings, stained glass and iridescent shell art.
Often, my guide asks me questions about my work, life and travel. He can’t fathom a life like mine where a woman manages everything on her own. Often he calls me strong, and his words are tinged with a kind of respect that borders on envy, and I tell him it’s less about bravery than about choice. I’ve no choice to support myself. I choose to travel alone. And if given the choice, I would have a partner but we would be equals because I would never, ever, be with a man simply for means, simply to be taken care of.
I think about how my guide and others must see me–a prosperous white American woman on her own. No husband to command her time and attention. Enough means to demand it on her own. I am all of the things but none of things, and it’s midday and I’m tired.
Sometimes I try not to think of class division even though I know it exists. We sit in the back of cars when we pay someone else to drive them. We are polite, if not downright deferential, when we pay others to take our food away after we’ve eaten it. In no way would I ever be foolish enough to believe that my privilege affords me a better sense of self simply because I’m in the position of sitting in the back seat. I am of no better character because of it, despite of it, although I’m certain there are many who believe they are better than simply because of the weight of their wallet.
Often I consider the burden of it. The cruelty, or adharma, money can cause.
I had an odd day, the kind of day I wouldn’t have had four years ago (I wouldn’t have been present or healthy enough to see the subtle signs), but over the course of the day my guide’s despair become palpable. He revealed that his wife is away on a contract hotel job in Turkey for two years while he raises their five-year-old son. He repeats, this is her last contract, and I vacillate between wondering if this is a good thing (she comes home) or a bad thing (financial uncertainty). When he plays me the song he played the last day he spent with her before she left for an inn named after Snow White, I realize that her return is auspicious and desired. I feel this ache, his longing.
Although he lives with his mother, whom he loves, he’s lonely and doesn’t much like his job (we compared stories about working for sociopathic, dishonest people), and sometimes feels he doesn’t like his life. Even now, as I type this, as I try to decipher his halting English, I wonder if he told me that he contemplated taking his life. I acutely know the comfort in confiding to strangers, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did mean this, but it pains me nonetheless. I remember his nervous laughter when he tells me that his life is so hard. I know that laughter because I’ve used it when saying things too painful to say in the company of others (I’m fine, everything’s fine–my constant, cold refrain). Part of me always wants to correct, to save, but over time I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t want to be taken care of, they just want someone’s kindness. They only wish to be heard.
So I did just that. I listened without waiting for my turn to speak. And I tried to be kind as I know how.
I invited my guide to have lunch with me at a fancy restaurant, and he refused for some time. He’s never been in a restaurant where he takes his tourists, much less enjoyed a meal served by the people with whom he would share a lunch (don’t worry, there’s free food for me in the back). I felt my privilege so deeply it almost made me feel ashamed of it. Of how he felt odd sharing a meal with me until I made him realize that we’re people who like watching animal videos on the Internet (we referenced a particular camel video we saw and we collapsed into ugly guffaws). We’re two people who love food.
I talked a lot about my father, how much I’ll miss him when I move to California. My guide shows me photographs of his sweet son (very fat, but very, very happy). We speak of karma and how we both try to be good people even if we don’t always do the right thing.
On the drive back I grew sleepy as he played songs off his phone–rock songs that are riffs off American music (Skynyrd, Zeppelin) and songs about leaving. We pass some words on leaving, on time, and how we fear both of these things yet have to consistently face them.
I would be silly or arrogant to think I made any impact. And it’s not about the meal I can afford. It felt more like I was able to listen and give someone else the compassion and kindness they needed–to not make this day about me. I think sharing a meal, albeit briefly, is an intimacy, a deep kindness, toward myself and for this great man who’s suffering perhaps more than I know.
Posted on July 8, 2015
Today I signed a lease and booked a one-way ticket to my new home in California. I feel frightened, uncertain. To be honest, none of this felt truly real until yesterday, until I called my landlord from Asia and gave him notice that I was leaving my apartment building of five years. It didn’t feel real until I emailed a friend of a friend who’d expressed interest in taking over my apartment, writing, you’ll like it here. It didn’t feel real until I text’d my pop that I was leaving in a month’s time and I responded to his succinct cool reply with, so when can I see you?
And it didn’t feel real until I spent an hour on the phone with Jetblue negotiating a flight with my pet. When the agent asked when I wanted to book my return, I responded, I’m not coming back.
My best friend, a woman who I’ve known for half my life, writes, I can’t believe it’s really happening.
People move all the time. People leave their home for colleges across the country. People study abroad. People are itinerant. I’ve been none of those people. I’ve done none of those things. I went to college and graduate school here. And while I’ve traveled through much of the world I always flew home to JFK and felt the word home.
Until I didn’t. Until there came a time when I replaced the word home with here. Oh, I’m here.
I can handle logistics. I’m Type A; I’m surgical when it comes to details. I’m able to negotiate between various moving companies from a hotel in Singapore with ease but the one thing that I find difficult to do is sit with the unease that comes with the knowledge that I’m about to walk into the familiar, eyes open, heart first. Logically I know this is what I want. I know I need to move, however, that doesn’t make this experience any less frightening. It doesn’t make the questions go away: Will I find work while in California? When will I have to get a car? Can I parallel park? Will I find love? How will I adjust being away from everything that is familiar, everyone whom I love?
I’m feeling the questions hard right now.
Posted on July 7, 2015
Maomao tells me that she’s glad her husband’s dead because she’s had thirteen years of freedom. You know, I liked him. I didn’t want him to die, but it’s as if the gods heard me. I’m 69 now. Can you imagine coming home to a man? It’s a second job. I would have to eat with him, pay attention to only him. My whole life would be him. Pointing to her license (all tour guides have to wear their badge prominently), I wonder aloud about the fact that she knows English and Italian. Why Italian? The dead husband, she says. I nod. The dead husband. We continue our half-day food tour around the Chinese wet market in the Chinatown Complex, weaving our way through hawker stores as she explains the difference between Haiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. Wrinkling her nose she says, Cantonese, all fried, very spicy, too much chili. Very yang. Gesturing to the cool blues of the Haiwanese placard she says, Steamed, boiled, healthy. Yin.
I offer Maomao back the pastry she purchased for me at the start of our tour. I tell her I have to chill with the gluten, that I spent a year with a nutritionist and doctor trying to repair my insides, and while I can occasionally indulge in wheat-based products, I got to take it easy. After an Odyssean of polite refusals, she accepts the croissant-like dough. Tearing into the flaky, hot sweet, she remarks that she’s no self control. I lost 30kg last year because I stopped eating and started walking. I tell her that’s a little extreme–a life sustained on salads and fruit. Maomao shrugs, pulls a bottle of water out of her bag, taps it proudly and says, It’s filtered. Then she proceeds to share her recipe for tortellini and meat sauce, a dish she’s making for her family this evening. Normally, they would never have pasta at night because there’s no time to expend the energy, but she’s mindful of a food’s expiration and tells me that she finds it strange that Americans store food for so long. How we allow time to steal all the nutritional value from what we eat. She only purchased the fresh pasta over the weekend and she’s concerned that time for her tortellini is running out.
Some might think this odd but I get it. I too am forever thinking about a ticking clock; I understand what it’s like to fear the one thing for which one has no control: time.
It occurs to me now, as I write this, that my tour guide’s name translates to cat in the English. The fact that the other person who was supposed to accompany us on the guided food tour of Chinatown dropped out at the last moment. Clearly Maomao and I were meant to meet.
We’ve only know one another for a few hours but I love Maomao’s candor, how she calls me a “new-style” woman because I’m unmarried, childless, and traveling on my own. At first she regards me with caution, curiosity. You’re very brave. And quiet. I laugh and say, I’ve only just met you. We start our tour and I do that thing I do when I’m around much older women–I become deferential, calm. My curiosity takes the form of quiet study while she’s inquisitive. Maomao has all the questions. How old are you? What do you do for work? If you are not owned by a company why do you pay taxes? Are you lonely when you travel on your own?
I think of a line Robert DeNiro said in Heat: I’m alone; I’m not lonely.
Over dessert at Tong Heng, where she presents me with a cool, syrupy-sweet bowl of cheng tng, Maomao tells me that shse has six children whom she loves but she says, emphatically and often during the tour, how much she hates frogs, pork, and turtles. You’re so lucky to live in New York, she marvels over the cakes, cookies, and pastries she devoured in the city while I pause over her non-sequitur. Maomao says she envies the fact that I have choices.
We talk a lot about alternative medicine. Maomao confides that when her son was six and he had asthma, she stepped a dried gekko in hot water, and he hasn’t had a problem with asthmas since. Shaking her head she says in a small voice that she could never tell her son this because he’d never forgive her. He’s a vegetarian. We talk about using lemongrass as a natural mosquito repellent and Maomao points to all of my blistering bites and tells me that toxins are desperate to leave my system. She tells me to drink frog or turtle broth (not the meat! never the meat!) as those are natural detoxifiers. We pass by a spa where we see a photograph of a woman’s feet seemingly steeped in sewage. The photograph suggests that bathing our feet in this way will expel all of the toxins from our body. I shake my head and laugh at the clever marketing and Maomao agrees. While she believes in the power of old medicine and natural herbs and the healing power of animals and plants–technology she doesn’t buy.
We agree that the marketing is clever and the people who buy into this are desperate, possibly stupid. I become fond of Maomao.
After, she takes me to a famous shop for mooncakes, Chop Tai Chong Kok, and by habit I purchase a bag of buttery savory cookies knowing that I can’t eat them so I instead attempt to pawn them off on Maomao and she reminds me of her willpower. Give her an hour and they’ll only be crumbs left in her bag. I procure bags of dried herbs from Anthony the Spice Maker after getting a whiff of his famous curry blend and Maomao’s assurance that if I spread the powder on a piece of chicken, your family will lick their fingers.
Maomao reminds me that she loathes frogs, pork and turtles and I confess my hatred of fish and the mushroom. There is a moment when Maomao looks at me as if I were insane. I’m not going to regale you with the details, but let’s just say we had a long discussion in a dining hall where Maomao tried to make me a mushroom convert and I adamantly refused.
Before we part ways, before I take another terrific lunch at The Noodle Man (the fried dumpings and tofu are REAL, people. REAL), Maomao embraces me. She tells me that it’s so hard to be a woman, we’ve so much to manage and bear that I should focus on making time.
Make the time for your life, she says. Before you are old and there is no more time.
Posted on July 5, 2015
Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see. ― James Salter, Light Years
There’s a woman I recognize in Chinatown. She’s seated a few tables in front of me on the thoroughfare of Smith Street and I wonder if the day has gotten the better of me, if the heat has ushered in a mirage of a face from my past–a face at first slightly familiar (it’s been a while), and then it reveals itself in degrees. Then the full of her, our history coming into focus. She fills the frame and I lift my camera and pause; I want to take her picture. We look at each other and look away, doing that thing we’ve all instinctively learned to do–we pretend we don’t exist, that the moment of awkward familiarity rewound and erased itself, and I’m left facing her, refusing to move because this is the only place in the restaurant in which I’m seated where I can get good light.
I know you. We were friends for years until someone I loved excised me from her life and you followed suit. My calls were unreturned, emails unanswered. It was as if you’d vanished although I’d see photographs in you in Sunset Park. You in Berlin. A woman cloaked in shadow followed by a poem from an obscure Chinese poet–I remember you liked your photographs marred, imperfect and your verse vague and neat.
I know you.
Part of me now wishes I would’ve done what I wanted to do: get up from my table and walk over to yours and say hello. It would’ve been a polite hello, a salutation that would’ve been mature, although for a moment I imagine tensions would reverberate. I didn’t want to be that woman who stared at you in the middle of Chinatown, in the middle of Singapore (what are the odds, really?!?!) and pretend I didn’t know you. But that’s exactly what I did, what we did, and I remember asking for my dumplings to go because inhabiting this shared space was unbearable.
The exertions have taken their toll. We feel the surface trembling. Or are we underwater, knocking at the waves overhead, asking for trespass to breathe?
It’s dawn now and I feel the burn in the mouth from my impatience, for feasting on xiao long bao, soup dumplings with a lightly flavored pork broth, from Jing Hua Xiao Chi and pan-fried potstickers at Lan Zhou La Mian. But at the same time I feel the coldness of you. How you glanced at me while talking to your friends who seemed oblivious to our transaction. And I think: this is who you are? Still?
It’s strange to see a place before it unfurls and then be in the middle of its frenzy. I’ve been waking early (if the jetlag won’t be the end of me, these mosquito bites surely will be), and I spent the better part of yesterday morning exploring Singapore by foot. I made my way to Chinatown, which is a direct, 30 minute walk from my hotel, to see tarp-covered stalls, plates piled high and tourists assembling for bad coffee. I took a second breakfast at Tak Po HK, ordering scores of tiny plates ranging in price from $1-$4, and inadvertantly ingesting seafood. I loathe seafood nearly as much as The Vile and Wretched Mushroom, however, the char siew pies were flaky and fresh, and the yam tart tender and spicy. Later, I had durian out of plastic bag, and remembered the delicious fruit and its unpalatable stench.
I began my day with a Chinatown markedly different from how I left it come evening. Funny how time sorts things.
In Little India I was transported back to the markets of Delhi and Jaipur and feeling outnumbered. Always wondering: where are the women? Why are the streets crowded with hulking, chain-smoking men? While my camera captured the few women weaving through the food stalls as they bargained for herbs and purchased jasmine wreaths, but the feeling of being surrounded by men was palpable. Men passing a smoke over a meal in the open eating area. Men forming a line for Western Union that snaked around the block. Men sitting on crates in front of the plentiful jewelry shops that lined the streets. Men saying pardon as they bumped into me. Men politely starring. While I’m speaking not in the pejorative, I should say that I felt my gender. I felt very much a woman amongst men.
I remember feeling faint from only having eaten a bag of almonds for lunch because I wanted to prepare myself for the dumpling binge that would ensue. This was an hour before Chinatown, before a saw you, and I wondered how my day would have played out if I spent another night shocked to get a $12 bill for a small bottle of Perrier (are you kidding me?) at my hotel. But in that moment I was exhausted from walking 12 miles in heat that felt in excess of 100 degrees, and all I wanted were the dumplings.
You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl. / —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
I want to tell you about your face. How hollow it is. How it assumes the shape of laughter but you are neither laughing or a contortionist. You are miming life. I want to tell you about your eyes. How cold they are in this heat–the heat that smokes the insides of rubber bins and cut fish. I want to tell you about the chill I felt when you looked into my eyes, look through them, as if you were desperate to grasp all that lie behind me. In that moment I saw you vacant, a robber-baron (barren) of fertile land.
There was an orchid in The National Orchid Garden that was practically translucent. After photographing it, I had to do a double-take because the flower was luminescent, it glowed cool under the midday sun.
Do you know in Hinduism there are 33 million gods. Straight face. Google it (I did). There is a god for everything, my guide says outside of Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple. It’s strange, you know, being in a kind of Utopia. Over five million people (60% are indigenous) live in a city where there crime scarcely exists (I’ve yet to see a police officer), a place, where, after three years you are guaranteed affordable and princely government housing. Where the wait time in a government hospital is 45 minutes and you are guaranteed healthcare. Where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and 95 other faiths cohabit peacefully. Where a mosque is constructed every 3K out of respect for Muslims who need to pray five times a day. Where people only need to worry about providing food for their family because shelter is a non-issue. Where a 4% supercedes the American 1% (36 billionaires and 174K millionaires reside in Singapore). Where everyone is kind and hospitable even if navigating the streets resembles a game of Tetris.
It occurs to me that I’m a tourist in a city that is unusually pristine and oddly near-perfect. And this puts me to thinking about faith and the impossibility of perfection (of which I learned acutely in Spain while admiring the imperfect perfection of Muslim architecture). A trembling always exist, even below a seemingly calm and idyllic surface, and if someone would’ve walked by me in that restaurant in Chinatown, they would’ve thought, Now there’s a woman enjoying her dumplings. There’s a woman smiling. There’s a woman photographing her dumplings. There’s a woman about to take a picture. There’s a woman staring (reverberation). There’s a woman in thought. There’s another woman laughing, all tra la la less. There’s the first woman’s face, falling.
The shift might very well be imperceptible to you had you walked by because what it had occurred took place in a span of five or ten minutes. Yet it marred a seemingly perfect day, albeit for a little while. I couldn’t get her, and my inability (or fear) to walk over to her table, out of my mind until this morning when I realized that feeling that discomfort, that ache and pain for someone I once loved, is me breaking in all the right places.
She didn’t break; she was impenetrable. I broke; I was a river.
Women don’t break. Women break.