My youth was filled with warnings. “Just Say No,” “This is Your Brain on Drugs,” and “No Means No” pervaded the cultural ether in the early ’90s. The advice came from our teachers, police officers who came to our classrooms, and my parents. My mother was particularly good at training me to recognize and avoid stranger danger. As a kindergartner, I learned adults never ask for help from children (which now as an adult myself, I can confirm; they are useless at directions). If a stranger attempted to pick me up, I was to yell “NOT MY PARENT” as I melted into dead weight, rendering me nearly impossible to transport into a vehicle. And if a family friend came to pick me up from school, my parents and I had a secret code to ensure they were legit messengers vetted and verified (PocahontasDaisy, if I recall correctly). As far as I can tell, no attempts were ever made, but I was (and continue to be) on the lookout for shenanigans. My friends have similar stories regarding the ways in which they were warned against becoming victims — with similar threads — stranger dangers, candy vans, and codes. Our parents clearly survived their youths in order to pass down these lessons, which made it all the stranger that they were so afraid we wouldn’t survive ours.
By my birth in 1985, there had been two world wars that affected generations of our families. Men came home traumatized, women shifted their priorities, children adjusted until they inevitably feared Russians and nuclear war. As if Charles Manson’s destruction of the ’60s had been a battle cry, the 1970s and ’80s saw the proliferation of high-profile serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Robert Hansen, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac Killer (and that’s just a handful) invading the public’s conscience. They were the “everyman” who lived in any town next to any person. Bundy was a charmer who volunteered at suicide hotlines. Gacy and Hansen were pillars of their community. And the nameless — like Zodiac — were so adept at blending in they were never caught. More… “Girl Afraid”
I interviewed Karen Armstrong, the deep-thinking comparative religionist and former nun in 2009 and still remember vividly the openness and subtlety of her thoughts on religion. Now, more than ever, her insights into the kinship among religions and the value of compassion and empathy seem worth hearing. Her landmark book is the 1993 A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. • More… “Celebrating Karen”
Although I consider myself an atheist, my lack of faith always wavers around the High Holy Days. These are the sacred days of the Jewish calendar that extend from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period of about a week, as the joyous holiday leads into the somber one (“on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed”), I am always visited by a memories of my childhood rabbi, an iconic figure, who embodies, for me, religion at its most beautifully contradictory. More… “The Rabbi Sang”
A man in tattered clothing jumped into the car as the train lurched forward violently, sending him unintentionally crashing into a group of five women near the door. They radiated femininity in their colorful Indian outfits and ornate jewelry, but their soft faces contorted with fury as they unleashed unexpected hell onto this imposter. Suddenly the women were screaming and beating this man. As quickly as he had leapt onto the train, he was thrown off. The concrete platform seemed to do him no harm; he bounded up immediately and pursued the train, cursing the women who cursed right back at him.
From my seat, I watched the spectacle with wide eyes.
“It happens every day, on every train. Sometimes it’s a lot worse,” a lady wearing an elegant salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, sitting next to me said in a dialect of Gujarati, since my expression… More…
I’m counting the weekends between now and Labor Day, crossing them off as they pass. Even though I love the summer’s long days, the glimmer of fireflies rising from the grass as evening settles in, I’ll be glad when I no longer have to find new excuses for why I don’t want to go to the beach.
Every year in May I realize that I ought to look for my bathing suits, if only to remind myself of what size I used to wear. More than any other single clothing item, a woman’s bathing suit tells her where she is in her life cycle. And the consequences of what have been euphemistically dubbed “lifestyle choices.” I am everywoman.
When I was 20 years younger, I had physical therapy for a bad back. The young male physical therapist demonstrated what he wanted me to do. “Do this,” he said just before… More…
I bought groceries three times a day, an ectoplasmic effluvium three times a day. I did not sleep or work. Food detritus bloomed in lavender plastic bags around the room, cautioning against visitors. The day and night were textured with throwing up in bags or toilet or shower — water running, viscous puke swirling and clotting the drain — and then lying migrainous on the cold white tile. I learned the tedious pain of filling up and emptying out. With bulimia, your behavior doesn’t necessarily manifest your appearance the way anorexia does. A sufferer is often very sick and technically normal weight or overweight. Upon learning of my eating disorder, a psychology professor trilled, “What was your lowest weight?” assuming that I was in recovery, gaining, clearly not that sick in the present. Out of humiliation, competition, shame, I of course manufactured a shocking small number.
Just now, after I pressed “quick min” twice, I turned away. That’s too long to stand, watching the countdown. I can’t stomach letting 120 seconds pass while I gaze, mindless, at the clock. Even 30 seconds seem like a stretch. But some days I’m reckless, and I watch the numbers change, marking the seconds remaining until the bell signals that the steaming plate is ready. The seconds pass, forever gone.
When I once made what I called “airline eggs,” I watched them cook, a pale yellow with green flecks of dill and parsley, in a flat white bowl. The eggs puffed like a sad soufflé in almost no time at all.
Ten digitally measured seconds go quickly; six such seconds leave no time to think. Sometimes I punch in three 10-second intervals, one right after the other, to… More…
Once when I was small, after my dad had told me that I’d be going to the U.S. Poetry Academy, I thought I should get some practice. Or actually, I don’t remember thinking very much when I was small, so maybe my dad thought I should get practice, and one day he taught me to recite Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I was good with language from an early age, and the poem’s rhyme scheme aids memorization, so my dad thought this was an appropriate exercise. He started out by reading one of Frost’s lines and then having me repeat it. I knew how to repeat every inflection of his somber tone, but I didn’t know what the poem was about. The only thing I understood was that there was a little horse, and I liked him.
1. Quit day job. 2. Sell eggs. 3. Go to India and Sri Lanka. 4. Change everything.
I knew my Asian father wouldn’t understand. He sees my life in the long run, wanting to make sure I’m not on the streets selling my vagina for meth in 20 years, because when you don’t have a 401K, that’s what happens.
Dad: “Whatever you do, don’t quit your job.”
Me: Hey, Dad — I quit my job. And I’m going to India and Sri Lanka.”
“No — traveling is not something you get out of your system.”
“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”
After graduating from Harvard, I crushed my father’s Americano-Chinaman dreams by working various social service jobs for $8.00 an hour, then volunteering with the Peace Corps, and finally, becoming… More…
Late fall is kind to us in Boston, partly cloudy and near 60 degrees. Everything is supposed to be dead, the foliage succumbing to the arriving winter, but life hangs on, the trees still with multi-colored leaves, the green grass, a few blooming roses in the garden. This morning I am running on a course around the Boston Fens, a large park with a community garden, a soccer and softball field, a basketball court, and arching bridges going up and over the small bodies of run-off water from the Charles River. The weather is breathtaking on this, my fourth birthday in New England and the only one on which I have been able to run outside. I was going to write an essay similar to this one last year, but it was far too cold to run outside and running on the treadmill beneath the overhead TVs displaying news about… More…