Monday, January 30, 2012

God's Pocket


          God’s Pocket was as far as possible from the sea, about 15 minutes by car to the crashing breakers of South Beach or 20 minutes in the other direction to Lambert’s Cove where there was barely a ripple. In the meadowed heart of the island our clothes hung, like crisp flags of conquest, blowing on a clothesline strung between two scrub oaks.  Pressing my face into a rough towel, I had expected a scent—soft, fresh, perhaps sweet—but smelled instead some musky mixture of pollen and sea air.

          The house was just a short walk from the duck pond and Alley’s General Store, where we picked up our mail, a newspaper and an occasional can of Habitant pea soup that had come all the way from Quebec.  A little further on was The Grange, a grand post-and-beam structure built in 1859.  That’s where we paid for our beach- and dump-stickers, where, on Saturday, we would go to the Farmer’s Market and where, in the evening, we shared the task of opening out folding chairs to watch old black-and-white movies, like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Some Like it Hot.” 

          Sitting on a hard chair with my ass asleep, hypnotized by the droning oscillation of fans that didn’t so much cool the air as momentarily relieve the heat, I would feel my sunburn flush in the dark, stinging my cheeks and shoulders.  My fingers were greasy, plunged inside a paper bag of homemade popcorn.  I liked to lick the salt from my fingers.

          I was a young girl, maybe 12 or 13, observing Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino for the first time.  In that quaint room they were as mouthwatering as tomatoes warm off the vine, as exotic as the scalloped edges of a pattypan squash.

          We’d walk back to God’s Pocket after a double-feature, in the dark, through the stars and under a moon that glowed like the afterimage of a fresh thumbprint, bright now but soon fading, past banks of orange tiger lilies, withered at night, and towering mounds of shadowy hydrangeas that would be bright blue again at sunrise. The grownups trained the slim rays of their flashlights down at the road ahead of them, as if they were inscribing a map of the island’s potholes. 

          When I held the flashlight, I aimed it up at the moon and waited for my light to reach it and return to me.  Instead, the thin beam dispersed just over our heads and lit the hovering fog that was quietly descending.

          What was inside God’s Pocket?  A wide-plank floor, pumpkin-colored, sensuous and gleaming from more than a century of footfall.  A lovely round window, like a porthole, by the staircase.  A narrow bed beneath a dormer window, my child-body sinking with relief into a too-soft mattress, the sheets lightly scented with mildew and bleach. 

          Lights out meant no light at all—no difference between open eyes and closed, just blinking black.  Wide-eyed, I would imagine the nearest lighthouse and its revolving beam, illuminating the spent flower heads and blue hydrangeas, routing out from its hiding place every earwig and earthworm, its spotlight penetrating straight down to the bottom of the sea.  

          Sleep came quickly, sweet and childish.  Most mornings the wooden floor was bathed in sunlight, foretelling a day that would be spent at the beach.   Or rarely, when rain lashed at the window and the floor boards were cool and dark, a day curled up on the couch with a book and a mug of tea, or patiently adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV to get reception on one of the three channels.

          I would have been delighted to spend every sunny day at Lambert’s Cove.  To get there required a 10-minute walk along a narrow, gradually rising forest path, dark and sun-dappled, and punctuated by random clouds of gnats. To get there was to emerge suddenly in open sunlight above the sea, with white sand beneath, shimmering sky above, beach plums and tall grass around a little pond down below the dunes, almost behind you. 

         Before me lies Lambert’s Cove:  its white shore curves to embrace the ocean, calms any turmoil.  The water glimmers in an abundance of light.  If there are people, I don’t see them.  This is my place, all the way to the horizon and beyond.  All I see and feel is mine.  The wind blows for me, the sun warms me.  I take off my flip flops to run better over the scalding sand, drop my beach bag, pull off my t-shirt and run straight up to the frothy lip of the water's edge.  Stepping onto a margin of pebbles in the shallow water, and taking step after step beyond them, my feet will sink slightly, into the soft, creamy sand and stop in just the place where the water laps at my breasts. 

          Mine was the perfect spot, between waving tentacles of seaweed and a domed boulder—the rock was round and heaving, black and slick, almost submerged at high tide, exposed and nearly golden when the tide was out.  I could find that particular spot with my eyes closed.  Find it and just give up everything:  give up gravity, lose the connection, just tip back and float.  Close my eyes and make of myself an offering.  The urgent call of gulls, the heat of the sun, all loose limbs supported by the living presence of water, solid and yet not, a body suspended above the earth, rocking gently, back and forth, like the rhythm of breath. My eyes are closed, gazing at a translucent red vista that is neither light nor dark.  Salt on my tongue, sea salt, sweat.  

          This is a place I once loved.  When I grew up I used to dream, on fitful nights, that I was on Martha’s Vineyard, driving by the red clay cliffs belonging to the Wampanoag Tribe, past Aquinnah Light and on to Lobsterville, across from Menemsha, where the roseate terns come every year to breed.  Only when it began to rain did I realize there was no place for me to stay. I understand those dreams as the thrashing of small hopes.

          Now in middle age when I dream of Martha’s Vineyard, I’m on the upper deck of the ferry headed toward Vineyard Haven.  I see the harbor in the distance, and further on is the lighthouse, where the shoreline sweeps around to the mansions of West Chop, structures whose elegant white columns, at once gracious and forbidding, stand sentinel.  My hands grip the ferry’s cold metal railing and I peer over the edge into the churning wake, until I open my eyes.  

          God’s Pocket has seen another generation of footfall, and more, since I was last there.  The post office moved years ago, and Alley’s now sells shiny blue-and-white mugs imprinted with their logo.

          My father and my uncle are buried in the West Tisbury Cemetery and my mother will be buried there, some day.  There’s room enough for me, if I want.

          It’s not just that I can’t go back, or that I can’t turn time back—I don’t want to return.  I feel claustrophobic when I remember my longing for solitude. I feel imprisoned by solitude when I recall my singular desire for the island’s beauty.

          My island is my unrequited love. I’d been so certain it was just a matter of time. Just as it is when you love a man who won't love you—when you think of him constantly, when you know what is best about him and you cherish him as much for his faults, when for so long you have believed in him, believed that this secret love will be returned—love as real and solid as a boulder, constant as the sea—you yearn for your heart’s home, and you wait. You’re sure you will find a way back, a way in, till you notice, as if by accident, that you’re all  alone, and you always have been.

                                  *                              *                                 *

A friend of mine shared a writing prompt she was given in her Creative Nonfiction class: Write about a place that has tremendous significance for you; begin from the point of view of innocence and end from the point of view of experience. I was surprised where this took me; I'd set out to write about a place I've loved and longed for my whole life. What emerged was quite different, almost sinister at times, and led me to an unexpected conclusion...a contemplation about hope and disappointment, the journey from youth to aging and death. Try it. See where it takes you.


                                 *                              *                                 *

Twenty-four hours later, and I'm thinking, "Hmmm.  What if people don't know what pattypan squash is?"

For those of you who've never seen or tasted it, pattypan squash is round and flat, with rippling edges. It tastes great when prepared simply:  lightly fried in olive oil and garlic and sprinkled with a little kosher salt, or if the squash is on the large side, halved and then fried, and served with a dollop of homemade tomato sauce (using some of those mouthwatering homegrown tomatoes).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Howard Jacobson and the Reversible Dress


My dear friend Debbie once confided in me that she felt left out during our late-night get-togethers over pizza and Buffalo-style chicken wings when we swapped embarrassing ethnic childhood stories. These talks took place at our dorm room at William Smith College, which was safely tucked away among the hills and lakes of upstate New York and had strong Episcopal roots, as well as a kick-ass Larosse team called The Herons, and just one black teacher, who pretty much reflected the student demographics.  My friend Cindy was Albanian and Greek Orthodox, Siggi's mom was Latvian, my mom was Armenian, and decades later Deb told me, "I felt like nothing."

I'd always longed to feel like nothing.  I thought that's how it felt to belong.

When I started grade school, I had two good friends, Leona, a blond, and Gracie, who was black.  One time when the two of them were fighting I had to choose sides, so I chose Gracie. I recall being in a crowded cafeteria, where the long tables and benches were bolted together, stuck tight between kids clanking their metal lunch boxes and tearing into paper bags for Skippy-and-Welch's-grape-jelly sandwiches on Wonderbread.  Gracie and Leona had been yelling at each other across the table for what seemed like hours.  I leaned over to Leona and yelled before I knew what was erupting from my mouth.

"You nothingless whitie!"

The whole table was silent and Leona looked mad enough to spit.  Turned out her pinched mouth was from the effort it took not to cry.  She pushed two kids off the bench so she could get away in a hurry, but before she made it out we all heard her wailing.

When I look back on it, I almost don't know which character I was.  When I sided with Gracie, I was siding with the underdog, I was standing up for myself and all the ways in which I never fit in.  And when I called Leona a nothingless whitie--what is less than nothing?--I was slamming down everyone who'd ever looked down on me or refused to notice me.  But I felt weird about it, and no one talked about what had happened.  Even Gracie was a little wary of me for a while.

Of course, I was also Leona.  I felt weird because my skin is white, but I'm not.  In my house we spoke Armenian.  We didn't eat rice, we ate pilaf.  There was no Dad--he was very old and very white and very not there.  It was just my mom and my grandmother and me, and all my cousins were out of state, and darker than I was and spoke better Armenian, and went every Sunday to the Armenian Evangelical Church on East 34th Street in Manhattan, and the grownups smiled at me in a way that made me sad. Instead of playing with my cousins when we visited them in Staten Island, I would sit in silence beside my grandmother.  My bare thighs would stick to the plastic-encased sofa, while she and her sister Vergine sipped coffee and spoke of their aches and pains and private things. The grownups forgot I understood their language because of my silence and because I was jermag. I was white.

I remember crying once because my cousins wouldn't play with me. They were a couple of years older, and they liked to ride bikes and shoot hoops, not play with Barbies or listen to The Beatles.  My grandmother--to my horror--told my Aunt Hasmig, who meant well when she forced Mary and Harry to play with me.  My cousins took me across the street, behind the old Waldebaum's, where no one could see.  I was wearing a reversible dress that day--hey, it was the '60s, what can I say?  My mom had a penchant for weird clothing and it didn't help that the decade was awash in all things weird--at least she didn't make me wear one of the paper dresses hanging in my closet.  She wasn't making Armenian fashion statements, for sure.

Mary and Harry asked to see my dress. They took it off for me, and I stood there for a few moments at the empty loading dock in nothing but my panties.  The cousins didn't look at each other but I could tell they were trying not to laugh.  Then their four tawny hands tugged at my white body while they put my dress back on inside out.  No one noticed my dress had changed when we returned--which may have been more traumatizing than the stripping itself. The evidence of violation was in plain sight, but not one person noticed.

Whether it was the shameful or trivial nature of the incident, I never told anyone until now.  I never longed to play with my cousins again--and never did play with them again.  Looking back on it, that dress was the perfect metaphor for my feelings about who I was.  I was Armenian on one side, white on the other, and which ever side was showing was wrong.

Have you read The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson? It's been called a brilliant comedy about anti-semitism and won Jacobson the Man Booker Prize, England's most prestigious literary award. I've never fully understood what exactly it is about him and his book that pisses me off so fucking much--and so personally--but I wonder if maybe it has something to do with his sense of entitlement, which is not something available to the average minority, and certainly not to a halfbreed.

Howie
The premise of The Finkler Question is that a gentile who resembles Brad Pitt has Jewish Envy and hurls himself from his bleak, barely experienced, anemic life, into the passionate, persecuted, emotional life of A Jew.  (He is embarrassed to say the word Jew, so he substitutes the name of his Jewish friend, Finkler.)  He chases many stereotypes:  the brooding intellectual, the woe-is-me humor, the engulfing warmth and passion of an earthy, fat, Jewish woman. Spoiler alert:  in the end he can't hack it and returns to the bland safety of his Brad Pitt persona (at least that's how I remember it).


Early Cher, before she turned white
Who the hell wants to be Armenian?  Armenians are the poor man's Jew.  We had our own genocide, but no one cares.  Like the Jews, we were handed a hot-potato piece of real estate so we'd stop complaining, but instead of The Holy Land, we get some shitty, landlocked acreage in Russia that's located over shifting tectonic plates.  Earthquakeistan.  Written Armenian was conceived in 406 AD by Saint Mesrob for the purpose of recording Christian mystical wisdom, but Hebrew is a holy biblical language that pre-dates the Old Testament, for God's sake.  Armenians have big noses; Jewish noses are arguably bigger.  Admittedly, our rendition of the JewFro is less spectacular.  Jews are known for their self-deprecating wit; Armenians are just morose.

Cher after ethnic-reduction surgery
Omigod.  Do I, in fact, suffer from Jewish Envy?

I have compiled a list of famous Armenians to get me back on track.  Notice that Armenian surnames all contain the suffix -ian, which means "son of" so, for example, my grandmother's maiden name, Tutunjian, translates as "Son of a Tobacco Grower."

Andre Agassi (dad's Armenian, dropped the -ian, hot and famous tennis pro)
Charles Aznavour (famous French torch singer and actor who, again, dropped the -ian)
Eric Bogosian (brilliant comic and writer)
Cher (Cherylin Sarkissian Bono--a halfbreed whose identity is firmly rooted in not being Armenian)
Mike Connors (how you get Connors out of Ohanian, I'll never know, but he was the star of the hit TV show Mannix)
Raymond Vahan Damadian (invented the MRI)
Princess Diana (oh, really? One sixty-fourth Armenian, to be exact. By the calculus of some particularly shameless inventive Armenian, Princess Diana's pedigree is traced to some Armenian woman from India named Eliza Kewark or Kewarkian, when letters with 'funny writing' were found in Di's ancestral home after her death. After investigation it was determined that the writing was Armenian and the letters were written by Granny Eliza to her children and grandchildren)
Atom Egoyan (director)
Arshile Gorky (artist, lost the -ian)
Calouste Gulbenkian (called Mr. Five Percent, known for being shrewd and rich, owned 5% of BP and other companies)
Gurdjieff (famous spiritual leader, sans -ian)
Kim Kardashian (slut) and her slimy dad, Robert (defended OJ Simpson)
Gary Kasparov (chess champion, sans -ian)
Jack Kevorkian (Dr. Death)
Aram Khatchaturian (famous composer)
Raffi (Kavoukian--kavoui is the way we say "holy shit!"--famous for the children's song "Banana Phone")
William Saroyan (brilliant writer)
Seymour Skinner (Bart and Lisa's school principal on The Simpsons.  On one episode he relates that he is not really Seymour Skinner, but actually Armen Tamzarian.  The town decides never to discuss his dark past again.)
The Zildjian Family (world's largest cymbal manufacturer; zil means--wait for it--cymbal)


When I was growing up, my mother told me that Cary Grant was Armenian.  "Look at his eyes and you know."  (That's like my Haitian friend claiming Usher as one of her peeps.)

I should do my own quasi-Armenian spoof of The Finkler Question. But what would I call it? Eench-jian ess? Armenians ask for each other's last names by inquiring, "What -ian are you?"

The Odarjian Question.  It might translate as Son of a Bitch since odar means outsider, outcast, misfit, or nonArmenian. That is who I am, the identity I embrace.

Odarjian is an exotic new hybrid of insider/outsider. It's better than Armenian or Jew, and while it shares many of its traits with Nothing (what my friend Debbie recoiled from and I longed for), it's better than nothing. Odarjian seems to be peculiar and incomparable, and long-winded. Although prone to hellish introspection, Odarjian, nonetheless, has the capacity for sublime and even light-hearted transcendence.

So, you think it's a little weird that I still live in my hometown?  As if I'm so desperate, as a misfit, to have a fixed identity that I'm rootbound? I think I would be very comfortable as an ex-pat, though--maybe a little too comfortable.

In Egypt (like anywhere else on the planet), Americans and Europeans  invent their own subculture of nonNatives, which is flexible and amorphous, porous and forgiving. Many years ago, when I was first married, I had an appointment at the American University in Cairo.  They were the ones who would officially translate my marriage contract, so that my marriage in Egypt to an Egyptian would be recognized in the United States.  The translator, an American, took one look at me and said, "Want a job?" For a sparkling moment I saw a new life spread open before me--a playful life of my own invention with limitless, exotic possibilities for continual reinvention.

But the charm of being a true outsider is thriving in hostile soil.  To be true to our inner odar, we can't assimilate--we have to find ways to keep fighting.  We may hate being an outsider but, between you and me, we love it even more.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fat Girl's Revenge

The cat swallows the canary

In an effort to change current marketing practices and shift the bias of popular culture that favors slim over round, Plus Model Magazine recently featured an editorial titled "Plus Size Models, What Is Wrong With Them Anyway?" Lots of persuasive statistics were included, like, did you know that the average model weighs 23% less than the average woman or that 50% of women are a size 14 or larger, but the average clothing store carries only sizes 14 and smaller?

Actually, I could have told you that without doing the research, cause I'm a fat girl and there's nowhere for me to shop--unless I go to a freak store that caters only to sizes 14+--and my shape has never remotely resembled that of a store mannequin or the girls I see in ads.  God forbid I should wander by accident into Chico's or Anthropologie--the staff look the other way as I pretend to walk resolutely to the jewelry section...where their lovely bracelets, by the way, won't go over my fists.

While I support Plus Model Magazine's campaign to "[celebrate] the plus size fashion, beauty and plus size modeling industries, [inspire] you to thrive in your curves, crave contemporary fashion and design your life on your own terms, sans apologies," I can't help but question the semiotics of their photo spread.  (Excuse me, but why is a fashion magazine using nude models to justify its existence--or does asking make me a prude?)

Let's start with the photo above, in which a beautiful Russian model proudly displays her back rolls--the same rolls that cause most of us heavy women acute shame--while embracing a painfully thin girl. I like nudity and sapphic embrace as much as anyone, but where is the thin girl's face?  Why does the heavy girl seem to be devouring rather than embracing?

I'm not fooled by their caption, "Changing society's view will not happen overnight.  We are all responsible for helping to make this change.  Embrace the uniqueness of you and appreciate your body."  Big Girl is not cuddling; Big Girl is just getting ready to eat Thin Girl for breakfast.  I've observed this behavior in my cat Pablo, who often grooms his prey prior to striking.

She's too thin:  but there's always my red stiletto
I'm fat, I'm opinionated, I'm passionate, yes; but I'm not butch.  Why do I have to lead the dance just cause I'm taller or fatter?  Why is thin (or emaciated) considered feminine? Because Thin Girl looks fragile and in need of a pair of meaty arms just to hold her upright, and Big Girl looks healthy?  (Let's face it, Big Girl ain't even that big--and where's our trademark cellulite, aren't we celebrating that?)  The caption here reads, "Most runway models meet the Body Mass Index physical criteria for anorexia."  A more honest caption might be, "Hump this, you skinny bitch!"



It's dishonest.  Why do fat girls always have to point at thin girls and cry out,  "Anorexic!" Bitter, bitter fat girls, we are.  (The girl in the picture looks ill, but many thin models look toned and beautiful.)  I, for one, would have liked to see Adam Levine's gorgeous Russian-supermodel girlfriend nude-wrestling with Big Girl (Adam could stay, if he liked).  Then we'd level the playing field and show two different kinds of beauty.  (Not so different, really. They're both tall, blond and Russian--they could be twins--it's just one's skinny and one's not.)  Aren't these photos and the whole focus on health a little dishonest and don't they distract from the real point, which is that beauty comes in many different forms? We must certainly allow each other our personal preferences; but while we're at it, let the fashion industry generate beautiful clothing tailored to the vast number of more generously proportioned consumers--as if all of us are actually worthy of beauty!   Hmmm, I used the word consumers. What did I mean by that? Hungry, gluttonous, wanton, demanding fatties?

And here's another point.  Fat jokes and teasing are painful in a way that a lot of other kinds of prejudiced remarks are not.  When I'm Black or Asian, female or handicapped, that's just how it is. But when I'm fat, I'm personally responsible for "the offense":  I have no willpower, I'm ugly because I have no willpower, I'm a lazy slob, I'm dumb, I don't care how I look, my personal hygiene is questioned, my sexuality is an embarrassment and an affront, and I invite ridicule. No, I'm not suggesting that discrimination against fatties is worse than racial or religious or any other discrimination, not playing who's-the-bigger-victim ('bigger', get it?), I'm just pointing out a unique dimension of the Fat Experience, which is the accusation that we're responsible for bringing shame and dishonor on ourselves, a pox be upon us.)

Hang on, I really don't have willpower and I am kind of lazy--but I'm not dumb or unclean and I do care about my appearance.  (Why else would I hide my extra chin in every profile pic?) Never mind.

I know three morbidly obese women (and two men) who have opted for gastric bypass surgery.  As far as I know, all five are satisfied with the results.  One of my best friends is obese and takes daily medication for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. She won't consider surgery because she understands the value of good nutrition, daily exercise, journaling and self-awareness, and consequently believes deep down that she should lose the weight on her own, powered by her intelligence and will. (As if bingeing is rational.)  She believes that eventually her willpower will prevail--and, if not, she deserves whatever she gets cause it's her own fault.  I guess I feel the same way.  But you do the math.  We're middle aged and we've been fat for, give or take, most of our lives, so how likely is it we'll make ourselves slim and fit?




Being a tall, voluptuous size 14 or 16 is fine, but I wonder if Plus Model Magazine has medium-height size 24s?  It sounds nice to celebrate all shapes and sizes, but guess what? It hurts to be a medium-height size 24:  joints ache, you can't tie your shoes (unlike our ersatz Big Girl, above), you're chronically out of breath and you sweat a lot.  Let's be honest, we don't want to be teased or unfairly judged, but we fat women and men want to look better--yes, thinner!--and feel better.

This fat girl's revenge is not to have a curvier model posing as a dominatrix engaged in softcore porn with an anorexic.  It's not to say fat is beautiful or thin is ugly.  This fat girl doesn't happen to think that pretending obesity is beautiful with marketing strategies will convince anyone it's true.  This fat girl's revenge is to declare that most fat girls don't, in fact, enjoy being fat and we don't want to embrace obesity, nor do we want to be fat models, we just want to be seen for who we are, not merely as fat people.

Perhaps the sexiest characteristic a person can have isn't a tight butt or a trim waistline but confidence.  Not arrogance, just that wickedly attractive sense of worthiness, as well as the humility to poke fun at oneself.  But you can't take a picture of that or weigh it on a scale.

[This was published in Elephant Journal in slightly different form.  It was met with a lot of criticism from readers who found it offensive to heavier women.  I'm happy to report that there were some readers who were relieved to have my point of view expressed.  Most interesting--and to me the most moving--are the positive responses from women who are thin or extremely thin, whose struggle with their body image is, in many ways, more marginalized than the problems of heavier women.]

Monday, January 2, 2012

Twenty-Four Goodbyes



Ever had an anxiety attack? Nausea, dry mouth, heart racing--that inescapable awareness of being in the shadow of death that makes you want to run for your life?

The fight-or-flight response is an animal response to stress, and we human animals experience it when, for example, a lion struts into our living room or, more commonly, when we are avoiding emotional lions.

Don't flee--feng shui!



This morning, I came across a wonderful project that helps us contemplate the lion in the room and, instead of running, teaches us to open the front door and wave good-bye to the big galoot.  On her Chakras Yoga website/blog, writer and yoga teacher Marylee Fairbanks invites us to join her 24 Things initiative during which we are to let go of 24 things in 24 days.

"Letting go can be a challenge.  We sometimes feel that we are defined by our possessions or are the sum of our experiences.  Over-identifying with feelings or things can cut us off from life's bountiful possibilities."

An example she gives is her son's baby clothes, which he has long-outgrown.  The tiny outfits are like talismans, evoking a cherished time that has now passed.  Exactly what would it mean for Marylee to give away her son's clothes?  What is she grieving?  What does she want to hang onto?  These are the kinds of questions we must ask ourselves as we select what to let go.

Day 1--Here's My White Flag, I Surrender!
Ican'tIcan'tIcan't.  I've given up my house, my privacy, my illusion of autonomy!  How can I give up one more thing, when all I want to do is ClingClingCling?

Can I give up the Christmas tree?  Not so much because its needles are carpeting the floor and the cats are getting better and better at swatting balls off the tree, but because I am symbolically saying farewell to...

Oh, I know.  Just bite me.

Can I give up some of my mother's junk?  Would it count if I heaved the salad spinner and the broken electric mixer that smells like athlete's foot or the 60 or so assorted empty containers that hog every inch of shelf space?  No, of course not, because they're not mine. Fucking, fucking hell.

Wouldn't it be cool to be born on New Year's Day so you could just blow the whole thing off? I just got home from my dear friend Shaimaa's 29th birthday dinner celebration and not a word was said all evening about resolutions or new beginnings.  Driving home, though, my kids asked me what my resolutions are this year.

"Okay," I said, "but you guys go first."

My son, Omar, rubbed his belly, which was full of chocolate cake.  "Well, I just wanna get ripped.  I have a four-pack right now, and I plan on having a six-pack later this year."

My daughter, Leila, who has spent the year struggling through reading assignments mandated by our school district as an unintended form of punishment, valiantly proclaimed, "I'm going to try to actually read my books for English.  Oh, and I'm going to make up all the ballet classes I've missed.  Now you, Mommy."

"I think your resolutions are great--you've got good, well-defined goals and you know how to go about reaching them--"

Omar interrupted, "You're stalling, get on with it."

"Well, you know how resolutions are kind of punishing--?"

"No they're not!"

"Think about it, it usually involves giving something up--"

"Yeah, of course," said Omar.  "You work hard so you get what you want.  Duh?"

"Okay, that's true.  But I was just reading this really interesting article on a yoga concept called sankalpa.  It's a Sanskrit word and it means will, purpose or determination.  So with sankalpa, instead of declaring a negative intention for something in the future, like 'I'll give up chocolate,' you state a positive intention in the present tense, something like, 'I choose healthy foods.'"  (Did I mention before that Marylee starts her New Year with 24 Things in conjunction with sankalpa?)

"Mommy, you're so weird.  So what's your sankalpa?"

I'm thinking jerk, but instead I tell Omar, "You've gotta be very careful how you word your intention.  I'm not sure yet."

"Hah!  You're procrastinating again--it figures."

Leila to the rescue, "Mommy, it doesn't need to be perfect--or you can fix it later if you want to, but you have to say something now, on New Year's Day."

Breathe.  "Yup.  You're right.  So I was also reading about this cool New Year's thing where you give up one thing every day for 24 days."

"That's good, Mommy."

"No it's not, Leila.  It's stupid.  Don't Buddhists talk about giving up stuff and not being attached?  If you're letting go of stuff, then that's as much of a New Year's punishment as a resolution."

"You have a point, you really do," I said, instead of saying jerk.  "But by letting go of stuff, you make room for other stuff--on an emotional level, too."

But Omar wasn't buying any of this.  "If you have stuff, why do you want to get rid of it?  Isn't the whole point of having stuff that it makes you happy?"

As I was about to go over to the dark side, Leila chimed in again.

"So, Mommy, what did you let go of today?"

My pride?  Jesus, I still had no idea what to let go of but, as the saying goes, if not now, when?


When we moved into my mom's house in November, I treated us to a new set of sheets for the double bed Leila and I are sharing.  It's very pretty, white damask, 400 thread-count, very luxurious, and I really shouldn't have spent the money.  But I always have the same problem. I use the fitted sheet and pillow cases, but not the top sheet because we use a duvet.

The point is, I have every top sheet I've ever bought in my lifetime, for me or the kids, jammed into our hall closet like a dirty secret.  I don't have a sewing machine, and I've never actually sewed anything, but I've daydreamed, "I can use this to make a duvet cover that'll match the sheets.  Or one side of it will, anyway." It's like the paradox of one hand clapping, what's the point of a one-sided duvet cover?

Why do I keep them?  Am I afraid that I won't be able to justify the cost of the bedding I actually use if I pitch out the useless sheets that come in the same package? Should I launder and bag the lot and donate it to the Vietnam Veterans of America?  That would mean putting it off for ages, and what are the vets going to do with a bunch of old sheets?

"Leila, Omar:  you know that white sheet that keeps falling out of the bathroom cabinet?  The one we keep tripping over and Pablo grooms himself on?  That sucker's going down."

That's my wimpy white damask flag of surrender and I'm letting it fly.  The sheet's in the trash, and the next time I visit my own house, I'm purging the linen closet.  I'll have room to organize what we actually use, and I'll still have room left over.

But why do I feel so judged?  A better person would have used them.  Someone better would have lovingly laundered and pressed them for the Vietnam Veterans.

But I'm letting go.


Day 2--Giving Up On Triumph
In my meticulously organized storage closet, the mundane hidden center of an otherwise cozy, messy home--a small space where everything has its place, mostly in transparent boxes that have been labeled with a labeler and where the shelves themselves have been organized into clearly defined and labeled zones--there is a small problem.

You'd have to look very carefully to be able to find it.  On a shelf, between the boxes of stationery and a red solo cup full of my favorite Pilot pens, it's there:  the green box.  To open the box is to become Aladdin, claustrophobic and bedazzled in a dreary cave, agog before an open treasure chest of gold coins and priceless jewels.

The box is brimming, not with treasure but with an array of antique buttons: engraved brass, gleaming nickel, and miniature faces cast in oxidized metal, studded with seed pearls, carved ivory flowers, filigree, copper, mother-of-pearl, polished wood, colored glass and even plastic in sweet shades of ribbon candy.  I bought it for a dollar at a garage sale; the sticker's still stuck to the green leatherette.

Just writing about it makes me feel greedy--just conjuring its image is to fall under that magic spell.  Why should I get rid of it?

Maybe because I so rarely seek it out, and because just thinking about it gives me almost the same thrill as actually clawing my fingers through it, and also because I am making room for something else.  Although I'm not sure just what it is, I know it's magical, too.  And it needs space.

On the top shelf, I need a step stool to reach a shadow box I've been saving.  I bought it when I was willing myself out of the madness of unrequited love, and I felt an angry ritual was in order.  I had a definite plan for the shadow box, which was to house the relics of a love that never fully existed, a phantom love. The centerpiece of the shadow box was to be a yellow post-it note with only one word written on it, in his handwriting.

Triumph.

It's the name of a bar.

I'd saved that note for ages and put it in a safe place--so safe I can't remember where. My shadowbox composition depended on that scrap of paper, on that word, and it was lost.

Time to give up on Triumph.  I had wanted to believe that I could, somehow, conquer my feelings--that if I couldn't be loved by this man, at least I could stop loving him.  Perhaps I can control some things--assign them labels and store them in clear boxes on designated shelves--but not this.  Triumph, alas, is not a concept that belongs here.  It is what it is.

So.  I want to arrange my buttons inside the shadow box, on a black velvet background.  I have a few ideas.

1. Which ever buttons are particularly evocative, arrange them in neat rows, up and down.  (I guess I'll need to borrow someone's hot glue gun.)

Then use the beautiful origami paper I bought, also for my original Triumph piece, and write the tiniest, almost undecipherable labels for each button, as if they are artifacts--emotional artifacts--or samples on a specimen board.

These labels can include the emotional spectrum, but also phrases or reminders of whatever feels relevant to me right now, at this particular time.

For me, it's playfully turning the idea of managing emotions on its head.

2. Take a few of the most interesting, beautiful buttons to the beading shop and make a bracelet.

3. Give whatever is leftover to my mother, who has an even bigger box of old buttons she's hanging onto or, God help me, give it to the Vietnam Vets.

I'll post a photo of my masterpiece whenever I finish it, but in the meantime...


Day 4--Happiness is a Warm Gun
Houston, we have a problem.  I was supposed to be getting rid of stuff, not buying more stuff.

The thing is, to realize my creative vision let go, I needed the following supplies:


1.  tiny brass pins
2.  black velvet
3.  a hot glue gun
4.  parchment paper
5.  a calligraphy pen


So I compromised and bought tiny brass pins, black felt, a mini-hot glue gun, drawing paper, and the slimmest sepia marker.  And I enjoyed every purchase.  I enjoyed asking where to find each item, and I enjoyed selecting each one.  There, I said it.  Biggest thrill all year.

But there's more.  Instead of paying my bills or doing laundry yesterday, I plugged in my hot glue gun.  It looks like a toy and is the color of a Granny Smith apple.  I arranged 36 buttons in six rows  containing six buttons each.  And then I shot my gun 36 times.

But there's still more.  I drew 36 tiny, curlicued banners and inscribed each one in elegant calligraphy, including such words as grief and receding hairline.  Before I'd finished I was already sick of it, sick of every flourish, every whining, suffering, sniveling verbal ejaculation of unrequited love.  And then I stuck 36 pins in it.

I took my drawing book to bed with me and brainstormed words describing the love I want, and I framed each tiny word in a more modest banner and this morning after I'd cut out 17 of the 36 words, carefully gliding around the wavy outlines of each banner, I stopped.

Alas, there's more.

I wrote 36 words describing what I want from life, surrounded by a small rectangle, and I snipped away.  According to Sartre and the rules of sankalpa, I'm acting in bad faith when I share with you one of my secret, sacred words:

fun

That's right, I said it.

After admiring my finished shadow box, I noticed a scrap of paper on the floor with five extra words, and I'm letting go of them.

I figure, this ordeal is worth at least five days:  one for throwing out some buttons, two for ditching Unrequited Love, three for ditching Ideal Love, four for ditching the extra words, and five for questioning rules that don't serve me and letting them go.  Six for giving up the blog?



Day 6--Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

My father's office

In the house where I grew up, my bedroom was the largest, a mirror-image of the living room directly beneath.  After I left home for good (or so I had believed) my father used the room as his "office."  (He had an official office downstairs, but mostly used the dining room, where he spread out papers, knee-high, on the floor, stacked the table with books, kept his ancient Royal typewriter which, to my dismay, my mother sold after his death.  Every time he changed the typewriter ribbon he had a ritual.  He would type a short story, usually erotic, and often titled "Attempts.")  His upstairs office was a bit like a stage set, with a desk and a file cabinet, but it was mostly used by my father and his mistress.

This morning, I let go a little more the idea of leaving here, and decided to roll my sleeves up, make the best of it, and open a path into the big bedroom.

The built-in bookcases are haphazardly lined with the detritus of past lives.  One shelf is devoted to desiccated perfume bottles, sensuous, rounded shapes labeled with beautiful names like Nuit de Noel, Arpege, Eau de Caron, Balenciaga Le Dix, Quadrille, Shalimar, Tigress, Sandalwood, Ivoire de Balmain.

The bottles are mostly empty, with a kind of resiny essence clinging to the inside of the glass, but if you open a bottle and lift it to your nose, there is a hint of scent, a reminder.  The bottles form a beautiful collection one might label Nostalgia. Nuit de Noel was the most potent.

In 1984, after I'd been home from college for a few months, having been dispatched from the school infirmary because of debilitating anxiety, April 18 was the first day I was able to do any work on my Baccalaureate Essay.  I was surrounded by perhaps 20 books, and instead of fear, I suddenly felt greedy to read and write.  (I can't remember the title anymore but it had something to do with a very ambitious explication of a teeny-tiny portion of Genesis from a feminist perspective.)

I closed my bedroom door and sprayed myself with my favorite scent, Nuit de Noel--lots and lots of it!--in celebration, and I worked till it was dark and dinner was ready. While I had plunged into the sanity of books, across the hall my grandmother, during her afternoon nap, had died quietly in her sleep.

The next time I used Nuit de Noel, it was like reliving that day; all of it had been captured in that bottle.  I returned the perfume to its shelf and, I admit, opened the bottle from time to time when I came home again over the years.

There's no thrilling genie in that bottle; if there is, what dark wishes does he grant?  Why capture the precise, alchemical  horror of a particular day?

Unless I'm the genie.  With the blink of my eyes, I command.

Bye-bye bottles.

Sayonara fire extinguisher, circa 1974.

Ciao broken ironing board that was last used by my grandmother more than 20 years ago.

As-salaamu alaykum moist towelettes of questionable origin.

Arividerci three gross, rusty loose-leaf binders.

Hasta la vista two defunct telephones.

And don't let the door hit ya
Where the good Lord split ya.

Day 10--Unplugged



In the spirit of letting go I went home this morning and unplugged my cable box.  Actually, three cable boxes, my modem, and a wireless router.  After unscrewing 75 cables that apparently connect each box to another seven devices--cables that I hope belong to Comcast because I wouldn't know what to do with them if they're mine--I packed them up, with the three cable boxes, the modem, the wireless router and three remotes, and returned them all to the nearest Comcast depot, four towns over.

But before leaving the house that was formerly my home, I emptied the fridge.  All the furry fruit and wrinkled veggies were reassigned to the garbage and the garbage was taken to the curb.  Anything that wasn't past it's expiration date was put into a cardboard box and moved to the trunk of my car to live out the rest of its natural life in my mother's fridge.  Our fridge now.

I emptied the freezer, too; my Totino's Pizza Rolls and Trader Joe's Vegetable Gyoza will now reside in my mother's freezer alongside her Lean Cuisine and her six glasses (painted with jousting knights) that she likes to keep frosty.  In our freezer.

I scrubbed the glass shelves with warm, soapy water and then spritzed everything with Fantastik.  I buffed the damp surfaces with with paper towels.  Then I pulled the behemoth away from the wall, and I pulled the plug.

Day 21--Boomerang Consciousness




The law of karma may sound goofy to skeptical Westerners, but our tradition readily grasps the Torah's eye-for-an-eye model of mirror punishment and justice.  (How the concept of mercy enters East and West is a little murkier--Jesus is all about love and turning the other cheek and Buddhism is about compassion, but in the end, we still fear Judgment Day and the merciless cycle of reincarnation.)

The concept of karma may be mystical, but it's undeniably logical. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Karma is just the law of moral causation.  What goes around comes around.

So, after 21 days of consciously letting go of one thing and another, what do I find?  Not emptiness, not regret, not pride.  I find more stuff.

In the last three weeks, I've donated seven bags of items to the Vets.   As I set the bright yellow bags marked VVA on the porch for pick-up, I wondered uneasily what on earth the vets or anyone else would want with my old sheets or a pair of ugly gray metal bookends or any of it.  I'm creating sacred space, I remind myself.  Or am I just cluttering the universe?

Then Rambo stopped by with the air mattress that had been on permanent loan.  He was returning it to me, along with a garbage bag full of extra hangers for baby clothes that I'd given him; he hadn't needed so many hangers after all and the kids preferred sleeping on the couch.  At first I had a heavy heart:  Oh, no, more junk.  Then:  Eureka! Someone else can definitely use those little hangers and now all we have to do is make up the air mattress and one of the kids' friends can come for a sleep over.

As the 24 days draw to a close, I see there are many ways to understand the elegant karmic equation that to let something go means to let something else come.  We can't always predict what will come based on what we've let go.

I've been bothered lately by the name of my blog.  It started off as a kind of irritation--like a grain of sand stuck in the fleshy maw of an oyster.  I wanted to explore the shameful thing that makes me hold myself captive.  A psychic cab driver in New York once told me, "You are like a horse perpetually rearing."  Maybe that was his standard pick-up line, but I don't think anyone has ever described me better.

Debilitating as it is, I was always kind of amused by my grand-scale procrastination, and I could laugh at it--and the more I blogged about it, the freer I felt.  I was still not doing the same things I had always avoided, but I was finally doing something else I'd always wanted to do.  When you share important, unseemly things about yourself, like being fat or horny or scared to death, you experience the dreaded shame and fret over possibly being dismissed as a narcissist, but then you finally move along.  You move!  The most gratifying is to discover others have felt as you do, that you're not alone, that maybe to share one's own fear is to ease someone else's, and then you've made a connection.  That moment of connection is the moment of bliss.  But just the risky act of sharing one's innermost thoughts--as if they're of any consequence to anyone else--that builds confidence, and confidence builds trust.  Trust in what?  Trust in oneself.  Trust in (I'm so sorry to have to say this, please don't let me die of embarrassment) the universe.

I don't know quite how to let go of The Daily Procrastinator.  It was a funny name, a neurotic name, and to change it means I have the audacity to take myself seriously--and who will like me if I'm all serious and stuck up?  Will I like myself?  God, no!

Well, let me be brave and tell you my New Agey story.

One evening, when I still lived in my own home, not long before my mother learned she had a critical heart condition, I was driving up the hill to my house and I saw an enormous red cat glowing in my headlights.  I stopped, the animal stopped, we assessed one another patiently, and I said to my daughter, "That's a fox."

A small red fox with a pointed white face that was illuminated by calm, remarkably intelligent eyes, and an astonishing red tail that would put a Maine Coone to shame.

Should I have told Animal Control?  Would they help the creature find a more hospitable habitat?  Or would they kill it.

I saw the fox again after I'd moved in with my mother, on the same road, but this time as I was driving away from our old house.  Again, we both stopped and acknowledged each other before continuing on our way.

I wondered if the fox had moved on or been hurt until I finally saw him again, on New Year's Day. Evening had just fallen and he was, to my horror, halfway between my mother's house and my old house, crossing Harrison Street by the Princeton Shopping Center, no longer headed for the woods.  There were no other cars in sight and, as usual, we both paused.  I felt certain we could have sat down, right then and there, and had a meaningful conversation.  But even if he's my familiar, one always experiences a measure of fear in the presence of an untamed animal.

Last night, I gave in.  I didn't call Animal Control, I searched the internet and found Kitsuné, the spirit fox.  Japanese lore from the 7th century describes these creatures, found even earlier in China and India:  they're not poltergeists but creatures of metamorphosis,  and they do not normally live in the human world. "Kitsuné are the outsider, whether as [spirit] or as demon...Japanese stories do not explore their world."  They often appear disguised as a charming girl.

My personal kitsuné is not traditional, and it's impossible to tell if he is spirit or demon.  Either way, he extends an invitation I find hard to resist.

So, just in case, I reserved the blogname, "The Kitsuné Journal."