The stand in

“Stupid Jew girl,” said the boy at the bus stop.  I was not upset or offended, just a little confused.  Was he Indian? Pakistani?  I didn’t know (isn’t that just perfect).  We were in suburban East Texas; did he think that it would make him blonder, more blue-eyed, to make some sort of dig at me?  Did he think I would find being called Jewish to be shameful?

I’ve always been amused that my family was the representative for Jewishness on our block.  We had Passover seders, apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah (when we remembered it, coinciding as it often does with my sister’s birthday), we showed our friends chocolate gelt at Hanukkah.  But I’ve never been to a synagogue or a bar mitzvah in my life.  I didn’t know that Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, even existed until I was a teenager.  My father wore a cross and went to church every Sunday.

But I was a stupid Jew girl.  Sure, man, whatever you say.

For as long as I can remember, people have looked at me and assigned me roles.  I’m a lot angrier about my racial/ethnic reception in the world now that I am an adult.  As a kid I accepted some subtle humiliations as general awkwardness of the teenaged years.  I was never going to be pretty or popular or socially adept, so it didn’t occur to me that it should matter that some discomfiting incidents could be linked to my color, my hair texture, my name, my (alleged) religious identity.

It does matter.  It should matter.

With varying degrees of connection to reality I’ve been the Jew in East Texas, I’ve been the American in Brazil, I’ve been the Brazilian in the US (that one was baffling).   I’ve been innocuous enough to pass for white.   I’ve been, “what are you?”.   I’ve been the stand in for a lot of different things.   The specifics have not seemed to matter so much as the fact of difference.  So maybe I’ll just stand for that.

Parents

Growing up is absorbing work.  One minute your only concern is to convince your parents to give you dessert whether or not you have eaten your assigned allotment of brussel sprouts, and the next you have to fashion a self that will stand the time honored tests of middle school, puberty, young adulthood.

As we diligently construct ourselves, what we might miss is our parents growing up too.  They transform from the parents of giggling (or scowling) little babies into the parents of adults.  Fellow grown-ups who hold jobs and create families.  Who know things and think things as peers.  But who are still their children.

It can’t be easy.  Remaking yourself is a Herculean task in and of itself, but to do so out of such necessity and following the schedule of the tiny creature that was once your baby…

I’ve seen the pictures.  I know my parents were my age once.  I’ve finally looked at those photos and discovered, “my god they were younger than me.”  They were two young and loving kids who wanted armfuls of babies (well, Linda wanted, but José was game).  They are now older, loving grown-ups with a small army of adult friends who happen to be their progeny.

My parents have with dealt this involuntary transition with remarkable aplomb.  I think there were some rough patches, but Linda and José have what I can only describe as grace.  Their children have aged and demanded to be taken seriously, and whatever else they may have had going on, whatever ideas about themselves they had fashioned over two decades or so of parenting little kids, they have indulged us.  They have accepted our adulthood.  We can all be adults together now.

We can all be open and honest like peers.  They still hide things from us to protect us (or some similar instinct) because they still want to shelter us from what they can.  It isn’t hard to do.  We have learned to take them absolutely at their word (for the most part).  We don’t pry or wonder.  Maybe this is because we are selfish and self-centered, but I’d like to believe that, just as they accept us as the personalities we are, we accept them as the parents they want to be.  We are keen to let them be the magical wonder-adults they were when we were little.

We love that they are our friends, colleagues in the work of life.  But equally we still love that they are our parents, who can say the right thing and fix what is wrong with ease.  From moment to moment they may not know if they will need to dispense fraternal commiseration or coddling and reassurances.  What hard guess work!  They are our parents, and they do it remarkably well.

Laugh

I catch the sound of myself laughing and think, “Is that my laugh? Really? Does it always sound like that or have I fabricated this tone?”  And I don’t know the answer.  I can’t remember what it sounded like last time, if I am just laughing or producing the sound I consciously think of as “laugh.”

It’s not beyond me to create a habit.  When I was little I saw someone stick their tongue out in concentration.  I liked it.  So I tried it too; every time I needed to concentrate I stuck my tongue out.  Years later I found myself sticking my tongue out involuntarily.  A quirk of my own creation.  It isn’t far fetched to think I have created my laugh as well.  Who knows.

My best friend since middle school is a firm believer in the power to change yourself.  New hobbies, new habits, new ways of looking at the world.  These things are within your control despite our tendencies to bemoan the trap of “who I really am.”  Not that she is capricious or inconstant.  We’ve been friends for close to two decades and I can still easily see the eleven-year-old she was.  But each of us has a lot of possibilities available to us.  Inertia traps us, our repetitive motions give us a false sense of security so we don’t have to face the vast field of “could be.”

Maybe this is my “real” laugh.  Maybe I imitated a sound years ago and it stuck.  Does it really matter?  I still laugh at the same things and only laugh when I think something is actually funny.  So I guess I’m saying I don’t think it does matter what the laugh sounds like.  You can experiment with your ways of being in the world, you can decide things about and for yourself.  At the core stay true to yourself, but superficially there is a lot of room to play around.

Standing on snow

I’ve been thinking a lot of standing recently.  This is what yoga can do to you, you stand – in front of the microwave, at the bus stop, in the shower – and think about your feet on the ground, the ground below your feet.  The act of standing becomes a marvelous wonder of bones and gravity.

Last weekend we went hiking.  Though the snow had melted or been pushed jan 2013 005aside from the sidewalks in our neighborhood, the trail was still covered in a crackling glaze of partially melted and re-frozen slush.  With each step there was a microsecond of suspension before my foot slipped down.  I found myself caught in that microsecond.  I felt that fleeting moment last an age as I balanced on crispy snow before floating down to the ground.

When I was young (exactly how young I don’t remember) a couple of friends and I, inspired by Peter Pan, decided we would practice flying.  We took turns jumping off the back of the couch.  Over and over.  Waiting to fly.  I have a memory from this activity:  I remember flying.  I remember being suspended just as clearly as I remember thinking I could not, in fact, flying.

In the grander scheme of things, I didn’t fly for long.  I didn’t stand for very long on top of the snow.  But who’s to say which moment really mattered, the moment when I balanced perfectly on top of the crackling snow or the moment right after when I sank.  So as I continue to think about standing I do not think of it as an end point.  I think of standing as dynamic.  We are always in motion, in constant renegotiation with the ground beneath us.  It’s a little dizzying but also somehow pleasant to think that each moment is so alive and important.

Playing with food

Every day I average 1-2 hours sitting on the floor, covered in soft, meaty dog food.  My little Pachi has decided to be quite the prima donna about her food, and I, being the dutiful push-over that I am, crawl after her offering handfuls of mush, swipes of peanut butter, tempting treats.

I cry.  I beg.  I plead.  I yell.  She is both deaf and indifferent, so none of this matters much to her as she sniffs my outstretch hand, unimpressed with the offerings.  By the time I leave for work my knees are covered in fur, my eyes are red and my breath shallow.  My fingers seem to permanently reek of a scent the can declares is “lamb and rice.”

She is old, my dog, and getting older.  She pads around the house, casually disoriented, she turns towards the wrong house returning from a short walk, she trips on the stairs, she waits at the hinge side of the door.  She is happy, and I remind myself each day that more than anything this is what really matters.

The anger at her food refusals doesn’t last long.  It isn’t real anger.  Just sadness.  She stares up at me with guileless brown eyes, unimpressed by my sob of relief when, 75 minutes in, she chows down like she has just noticed the food in front of her. I love this damn dog.

There are thoughts and fears here that I’ve tried to write a half dozen times.  I can’t.  So Pachi and I will just sit quietly on the floor together, and you can imagine us playing with our food.

A painting of sunset

One year for Christmas (or maybe my birthday, December 2001 regardless) my eleven-year-old sister gave me a painting.  It was a sunset, she told me, from when she had gone whale-watching.

The colors were identifiable to me as yellow, blue, white.  The shapes made themselves legible, clouds, waves, rays of light.  But no matter how long I stared at it, the painting didn’t look like a sunset to me.  It completely defied my expectations and confused me.  I treasured it.

Sometimes I would get angry at it, and even annoyed with my sister, why couldn’t she have just painted a sunset instead of painting me this incomprehensible scene, then mocking me by labeling it “sunset”?  Taunting me with some unknowable vision, neatly enclosing the limits of my understanding in an innocent wooden frame.

In the twelve years since she gave it to me I have lived in twelve different homes.  With the exception of two of places (couldn’t risk stuffing it into an already overstuffed suitcase) the painting has come with me and is usually the first thing to go up on a wall.  I absolutely love this painting, despite the jumbled emotions it inspires.

It only recently dawned on me (pun unintentional, but pretty perfect nonetheless) that what I have been staring at — with love and self-pity and admiration and doubt — is not, in fact, a sunset.  Not any sunset that I have seen or will ever see.  No, for nearly a dozen years I have had the incredible privilege of looking out at Raquel‘s sunset.

My little sister opened her eyes one evening and this is what she saw.  And then she gave that sight to me.

I’ve seen sunsets; the cones and rods of my retinae have absorbed evening light and bounced the information to my brain where my inner monologue said “sunset”.  Say the word to me again and I get an image, my own concept, of sunset.  All very useful, but my own labels have prevented me from appreciating that “sunset” to someone else looks different.

I think we all  have a lot of expectations, for how a day will go, for how another person will act, for how we’ll feel about this that or the other.   I wonder how much my expectations have caused me to miss.   On my wall hangs a painting of sunset, that still looks nothing like sunset to me, that fills me with joy and wonder for the immense plurality of human experience.  I am so grateful for it.

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In defense of letters

When I was in middle school my two best friends both had divorced parents, and they both spent their summers out of state.  I suppose it didn’t end up making a huge difference on a practical level for me since my siblings and I spent our summers absorbed in family togetherness which, unlike many children I’m told, we relished.

But still, I wanted to stay in touch with my friends.  Email wasn’t a thing yet, and I have always hated talking on the phone.  So my two friends and I sent each other letters.  We didn’t want to leave anyone out, so we would send a single letter in a loop: one person sending a note, the second one adding to it, the third contributing even more and forwarding the whole thing back to the first person.

The problem with e-mail and Twitter and these rapid fire communications is that they encourage us to share the feelings of the moment.  If you send a letter, you have to write something that will still be relevant in 2, 3, 12, 17 days (depending on where you send it) when it finally arrives and is read.

To write a letter is to play the long game.  To ignore the fact that you were watching your feet one day and walked into a wall at the office and instead contemplate the path of your career and the meaning of your work.  To forgo the tirade against the guy who cut you off and ponder the ways our bodies move in modern society.

I love letters.  I still write the occasional letter, though I rarely send one.  I think my life needs more letters.  Not only to communicate to others but to work through my thoughts for myself.  These daily moments that we are all so concerned with look different when I think about them as part of a larger picture, as a whole life.

Catching a man

I met my husband at an indie rock show in Brooklyn.  I almost didn’t go, all of my friends bailed, I had a headache, I’d already taken out my contacts and put on my glasses, usually sure signs that slipping on my PJs and breaking out my book was just around the corner.  But my little brother had told me about this band, they were playing just two subway stops away, so I dragged on my bulky winter coat and forced myself out of the house, stopping to check my reflection only to make sure that I was indeed fully dressed.

I got there early, I’m early for everything.  One other girl was already waiting.  We chit-chatted because it would have been more awkward not to say anything.  I don’t have any recollection what she said except she was from New Jersey and she really liked the band.  I thought she was weird.  Other people started showing up.  I scanned the collected group dispassionately.  I was most concerned with going inside before I got so bored of waiting with this weird girl that my headache turned into a bad mood.  Then T-shirt guy came up to us and started talking.  Great.  Now he and my new friend from New Jersey were buddies and I was standing close enough to them that I had to contribute to this conversation.  God damn it, why did I have to play chaperone to these weirdos who meet at shows and then become friends on Myspace or whatever?  I hate not being able to relate to my own species.  ‘Stop it,’ I told myself, ‘don’t scowl, act like one of those normal people that’s allowed to leave their house unattended!’  The doors opened.  I was just about to be relieved, but I’d forgotten that as one of the first people in I was facing an empty room.

Though I’d decided not to drink so as not to interfere with the Advil I took before leaving the house, I immediately went downstairs to the ATM for money so that I could buy a beer.  T-Shirt was pocketing his money and heading back up as I approached the machine.  I got my money and went back as well.  Jersey-freak had skittered away somewhere, not old enough to drink; T-Shirt was at the bar.  Do I conspicuously sit as far away as possible at this empty bar?  ‘Quick,’ I thought,’ what would a normal, not hating all of humanity and loathing social contact type person do?’  I left one bar stool between us.  ‘Why don’t I just be a friendly person, I’m bored, the band will take forever and if I don’t talk I will drink WAY too fast.’  So I said hi again, introduced myself, chattered away about something, he chatted back but broke off his participation now and again to look over my shoulder.  He finally hopped up having spotted the person he was looking for.  By then the room had a crowd, his seat was quickly filled.  ‘What a relief,’ I thought, finally safe with my drink and the dim light, the anonymity, and eventually the music.

I ran into T-Shirt throughout the show.   I stood outside with him between sets as he smoked.  The conversation was pleasant enough that I wasn’t too annoyed that the cigarette caused us to miss half a song.  We exchanged phone numbers, at which point I had to confess that I’d paid no attention to his name.  He told me it was Aaron (*facepalm, so simple!), made it worse by remembering my name, Analía (A nawhata? Who the hell remembers a name like that?), and proceeded to add insult to injury by getting the spelling either right or really close.  I chuckled sarcastically to myself, ‘yeah, this is going well.’

Apparently it did go well because he actually called me.

A couple of weeks later we went on a date that essentially lasted all day, and a year later he married me.  So here’s to letting go of expectations and plans and just letting life happen to you, headache or no.  Happy anniversary, Aaron.

The hairball

[In honor of Mr. Clemens’ upcoming birthday (Nov 30), a memory from my Twain phase.]

For 12th grade English in my high school in Brazil we had to write and perform a dramatic monologue based on a character in one of the books we had read in the last two years of our International Baccalaureate (IB) program.  Most of the girls chose characters from One Hundred Years of Solitude.  They performed in flowing white shifts on a stage covered in flower petals and candles, wailing of their hopes and sanity, lost in the hot sun and imagined swamps of Macondo.

A friend of mine and I had both transferred in from overseas, so we had alternative repertoires from our junior years.  She chose Sylvia Plath.  She wrote a long, complex poem that dramatized Plath’s final moments making sandwiches for her children before putting her head in the oven.  It was terrifying and brilliant and greeted with awe (at least, I was impressed, maybe others were just freaked out by the intensity and the verse.)

I went a different route.  I decided to portray the hairball that Jim uses to tell the future in Huckleberry Finn.  Somewhere in the teenaged guidebook to social suicide is a special case study about standing in front of 60+ smug Brazilian high school students and telling them, in thick Southern drawl, that you are a hairball, puked up by an ox.

I fucking loved it.  I started and ended as Mr. Clemens himself, but through most of it I twitched and contorted and sprawled my coarse language all over the auditorium, transformed into a storytelling glob of saliva-soaked hair.

Moving to Brazil is poor timing for  a Twain phase.  I’m not sure that classic Americana translates culturally.  I also don’t think my classmates’ lack of cultural connection to the Mississippi River was really my problem.

My problem was that I was small and weird.  I’d read Crime and Punishment in my junior year too.  The raw dirtiness and unrelenting suffering of the book was profoundly affecting for a kid my age, a kid who was loath to do anything wrong, never mind bludgeon an old woman to death.  Irreversible and unthinkable error.  It was a like a gruesome accident you couldn’t look away from.  But for my dramatic monologue?  I wasn’t a tortured Russian, plagued by my past hopes and the crumbling façade of my increasingly unlikely future.

I was a hairball.  A partially digested wad of backwoods mythology.  A brief and soon forgotten oddity hurled up from the acidic depths of a place we all ignore.  I was a minor character, not even a character, a minor set-piece, a dumpy little piece of the backdrop come spitting and retching into life for just a moment on stage.  It felt like destiny.  That hairball told me of my future as an awkward little freak and I hugged it close to my heart.

Oh, how she sings

I sing when I do yoga.  Not demure incantations in Sanskrit, I crank CCR and wail along.  Death Cab for Cutie makes me bounce through sun salutations, The National helps me delve into the depths of my hips.  With Simon and Garfunkel I spill into the sweet ache of a forward bend.  Yoga is supposed to be all about linking breath with movement and at home I’m terrible at this.  Probably because I’m yodeling the whole time.

I have never been one to sing around the house or really belt it out in the shower.  I loved singing, and as a kid I think I had a nice voice.  But I was shy.  Shy and convinced of my own inadequacy.  I established that I would sing in front of others when I was certain that it would sound amazing and they would heap praise on me.

Once in awhile I would tentatively sing along with the radio in the car.  No response.  I sang a little louder.  No heads turned, no eyes widened.  My breathtaking talent remained insufficiently developed.

Like most adolescent emotions, my thoughts on song were confusing.  I waited with bated breath for recognition of my natural talent, but when I was asked to sing something or praised by my meager fan base (read: parents) I revolted.  Don’t say anything!  I’m great, I am (or could be?), but I’m not ready to burst onto the musical scene quite yet.

One night, heading to the room I shared with my little sister, I heard a melody.  My mom, singing Raquel to sleep.  She sang softly.  The low notes faded into whisper, her voice cracked ever so slightly at the higher notes.  It was so beautiful!  And so sweet.  Why couldn’t it be like that for me?  Gently singing something as simple as a lullaby. Why couldn’t I just raise my pretty little voice to the sky and tenderly, unselfconsciously, tease out a tune?

With the melodramatic mind of the pre-teen girl I bemoaned the burden that made me unable to participate in such small pleasures.   Tender lullabies could never be for me;  I would have to hit every note perfectly or resign myself to silence!  I nursed this strange, paralytic need to be sensational.  I was so isolated in my powerful expectations for myself.

What I missed out on over those high-strung years was the joy of singing.  These days my husband faintly rolls his eyes as he maneuvers around his wife, singing and contorting herself in the middle of the living room.  I am perfectly OK with this.  It matters very little to me that I sometimes make up words or can’t actually harmonize.  I’m having fun!  What a novel idea!  Life is not a performance, the preparation for a test.  It just is.  And hell, I’m going to caterwaul to my little heart’s content.