Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Whole New Look

I’m standing in my pale blue bathroom and staring at my reflection in the mirror, trying to gauge the image of the person staring back at me. I recognize myself, obviously. The thing is, this person in the mirror looks completely different than she did fifteen minutes ago. She has incredibly short hair.

My hair hasn’t been this length since I was one or two years old. Back then, it naturally grew into what resembled a bobbed mushroom top. This frock on my scalp now has been shaped and molded to look this way. I did it on my own volition. One day I just decided, “I really want to cut my hair.” So I did.

I turn my head from one side to the other and lift my chin. I raise my eyebrows. Squint. Do I look like Katie Holmes yet? What about Audrey Tautou, that dark-eyed, French actress. Where is my beret?

I run my fingers through my shag, and then rub them around, messing it all up like I’m giving myself a noogie. In some places the pieces stick straight up. Freaky.

When I walk back out into the living room, my once long locks lie in clumps on the hardwood floor, scattered like long strings of confetti. I sweep up the mess quickly, both to dispose of the evidence and because I’m late to work. I don’t feel remorse. Not yet. I see that pile of brunette hay in the trashcan as dead cells. Did my color always look that muted?

Later that day my roommate comes home and sees my new look. She’s very excited.

“You’re like Coco Channel when she cut her hair! What’s that her man-friend said? A woman who cuts her hair is a changed woman.”

Hm. A changed woman. I wasn’t really trying to be a “changed woman.” I kind of liked who I was.

A few days later, after work, where I had to explain to every other customer who came in the door why I chose to do this to myself (“I just felt like it,” I would say), I decide to go to the Buffalo Exchange to troll through the merchandise. I try on a pale purple skirt, tweed and high-wasted. It was probably made in the sixties. Yes, this will do. When I get to the checkout line I spot a thick wooly scarf and green Ray-Ban knock-offs. I quickly throw them on the pile. My new hair is speaking to me. “You need these new things,” it says. Apparently the hair feels changed and wants me to follow suit.

Later in the week it’s Homecoming, and a group of my college roommates plan a reunion dinner at PF Changs. I wear the scarf and the glasses. I also wear skinny jeans and a blue striped shirt. It’s kind of French. Find me that beret, and I could be in costume. Come to think of it, everything I wear lately feels a bit like a costume.

I’m the last to arrive, and all the girls are seated at a table next to the door. They see me, but no one says anything for a few long seconds. Perhaps they are trying to decide if my hair is tucked under the scarf or actually gone. Where is it?

“Oh my god, your hair!” Bonnie says.

I wait to speak. Here it comes. Good or bad. Hit me.

“I love it!” she says.

The girls take their queue from Bonnie, and the table erupts in feminine chatter.

“You look so professional!” they say. “You look like a journalist.”


On Thanksgiving I call my parents to say hello. My dad does his usually, “Miss you, love you, here’s mom.” Mom gets on the phone, and I ask her if she saw the picture of my hair that I sent to dad. I wonder if she’s avoiding the subject.

“Yes I saw it,” she says hesitantly. “It’s cute.”

There’s more to this, I think.

“Well, honestly, Rachel, it’s not my favorite. It looks a little, oh I don’t know, fifties.”

“Maybe that’s because I’m wearing a second-hand tweed skirt, and I hadn’t washed my hair in three days,” I say.

The front was practically sticking straight up, but I thought it looked cool. Artistic even.

“Well I just have always liked your long hair,” mom says.

Leave it to her to be brutally honest. I think she just fears the change.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Creative Non-what-now?

My life for the past nine or ten months has become devoted to the grad school application process. It took me a long time to get to the place where I could admit that, both out loud and to myself. But be it self-consciousness, fear of rejection, or fear of the unknown, I just couldn’t say it. But thankfully, sometimes we are forced to make decisions. The deadlines loom, the essays must be written, the transcripts ordered.

So I’m no longer just “thinking about applying,” or “looking into schools,” or “requesting information.” I’ve gotten the information, I’ve read the books, I’ve drawn up lists and agendas and due dates on a cork board in my living room and stared at it for a really really long time. And a few days ago, I officially sent in my first application. Hello world, I’m applying to grad school.

Yet unless you know me pretty well, I probably still won’t come out and tell you the truth—that I’ve actually been thinking this over since I started college, and that I really want to get into a top writing program, I mean really. And that my feet are feeling pretty damn ready to walk right out of San Diego, soon. Despite my glorious apartment, and free food from Krakatoa, and a cat that affectionately steps on my spinach, I’m ready to go.

So why are you ready, you may ask. Let’s face it—“I’m going for my MFA in Creative Nonfiction,” sounds like Bosnian to most people. The moment the statement is off my lips, questions flash. What’s an MFA? How can “nonfiction” be creative? Why would a writer need a Master’s?

I do not know how to even begin to answer these questions. And, yes, I admit it, sometimes I feel like I’m part of an elitist club who feels that the questions aren’t worth answering. “Well if you really have to ask,” one might say, “Then you just wouldn’t understand.” But I’m not elitist! I want people to understand!

So here goes—

“An MFA is a Master’s of Fine Arts. “

“Whoa, there, Bessie. A MASTER’S of Fine Arts?”

“Well, yes. That’s what MFA stands for.”

“But you’re 23. You’re not old enough to be a master of anything.”

“Well, yeah, I know, but maybe with the right program, and the right professors, and some experience teaching freshmen comp, and after completing a thesis (publishable book) about my issues with my family, or my elementary school days, or my first crush, maybe I’ll have mastered something.”

“I don’t think it works that way.”

“Shit. You’re right.”

Okay, so maybe not what, but why. Why do I want to go to grad school? Let’s see—

To become a better writer.


To use big words in a very intelligent way that causes readers to crack open a dictionary.

Ha. Sure.

To be one of those people who goes to book parties on the Upper West Side.


Wait a minute—no, that’s not it at all. That “image” thing right there, is so totally not IT. I am not bothering to apply to Columbia (which costs about $80,000, by the way) because it would be all about the image.

So let’s do this right. I’m applying to grad school because…

I want to.

If, though, in the next six months, you notice I become a little jumpy when you ask, “What is Creative Nonfiction anyway,” don’t take it personally. I may sigh, take a swig of my drink, and reply, “I really wouldn’t know.” Because in all honesty, I’m still trying to figure that out myself.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Missing Maine

If I were back in Maine, I'd probably take my coffee mug, wrap myself in a scarf or two (and a hat, gloves, boots, knee socks, tights, jeans, a small brown sweater, a lumpy grey one, and large black peacoat), and I'd walk out the two doors to my second story apartment, turn down Vesper Street, and head towards the water by Munjoy Hill.

The sky would be a tumultuous blend of blue, white, and grey. The wind would be blowing, hard. I'd grip my silver mug tightly between my gloved hands, willing the warmth to reach my frozen fingers.

The sea, a mass of grey also, would chop and swirl, beckoning the coming storm. It would be so very different from the same sea I saw in September. Back then the trees on the hill were thick with verdant leaves. I rode the Schwinn bike from the basement, the one my landlord fixed up free of charge, and I'd take it all along the little paths leading down to East End Beach, stopping to lean against a picnic table and climb the last fruitful tree with the last bunch of good apples. I'd prop my legs around a supporting branch, like straddling a horse, and eat two or three or four apples, dropping their cores to the ground below. People walking past would hear the sound and look up at me sitting there, and smile.

But in November, as it is now, the views would have changed.

The trees are most likely bare, the sailboats are gone, the islands appear desolate, and I would no longer want to take a canoe to paddle out and discover them. They are frightening, floating alone in that discordant sea.

I would continue making my way down the hill, slipping on the first pools of ice, stopping to crouch and stare, poking their centers with my boot, marveling over the new natural phenomenon that is "cold."

And when I finally reached the water, a friend would come to meet me. She with her tea and me with my coffee, we'd run to the water and kick the lapping waves with our Wellies, and pick out rocks the shape of hearts, and link arms and tell secrets in whispers, and dream of what life could be like if we stayed in such a place. I knew I wouldn't, in the end. It was dramatic and beautiful and profound, but if I stayed, I may never leave.

So for now, I must be content, in California, missing Maine.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Language Barrier

My best friend from home, Tracie, lived in China for a year during college. She may never have perfected the language, but she learned quite a lot for a little white girl from the Valley. The first Sunday we spent at home together, she had just gotten back from her trip, and I had just returned from crewing in the Greek Islands on the sailboat, Reflections. It was July 2008.

            “We’re not gunna stick out at all!” Kaity joked, as she, Tracie, and I made our way to the front of the building where tiny, black-haired Chinese men stood handing out bulletins. Kaity’s the only girl I know who’s slightly taller than me, and she also happens to be blonde haired and blue eyed, very Anglo-Saxon.
“You know, last night I was a little nervous about this,” Kait continued in her sarcastic tone, “But now I’m like, let’s do this.”
She took a sip of her coffee that we made at Tracie’s house, warmed up in a silver travel mug. I knew it was just because she was running late, but I couldn’t help but think, “We Americans can’t even go to church without coffee.”
We made our way to the man with the bulletins, who looked up at us skeptically.
“This service is all in Mandarin,” he said. “There isn’t a translator.”
“We know,” Tracie smiled.
“Oh.” Apparently he was still confused.
“Wo zhi dao,” Tracie said. (I know.)
“Oh! You speak Mandarin!” The man’s face was simply glowing. “You speak Mandarin too?” he asked me while holding out the blue paper filled with Mandarin characters.
“Um, no, just her,” I said, pointing to Tracie.
“Me either,” Kaity said, not bothering to take a bulletin.
We walked inside the church and took seats in the back of the sanctuary.
“Unless someone wants a wall in front of them,” Kaity said, “Let’s stay back here.”
I sat in between Tracie and Kait, and almost immediately after we sat down, a much younger man with glasses and a big white smile came up to us.
“You speak Mandarin?” he asked, pointing to Tracie, who smiled and nodded her head.
“Wow, that’s great,” he said. “You probably speak even better than I do. I speak more Cantanese.”
Not knowing the difference between the Mandarin and Cantanese, I chose to remain silent.
“Can you guys fill these out?” he asked, handing me a clipboard. “The sisters can fill one out together.”
I looked down at him blankly.
“Oh, you’re not sisters?” he asked, pointing to Kait and me.
“No.” Tracie laughed and took the board.
“It’s just because we’re both white and tall,” I whispered.
Once we had finished filling out our forms, we were introduced to a female Chinese college student, who was strategically placed next to us to translate the sermon. She was wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and had on jeans and a T-shirt. She barely cleared my elbow.
“Where are you from?” Tracie asked her curiously. “Have you ever lived in East Asia?”
“I was born in China, in Nan Jing, then we moved to Oklahoma when I was ten.”
 “Have you ever been to Tong Cheng?” Tracie asked.
“Um,” the girl smiled shyly, “I don’t know Chinese geography very well.”
A bald man at the front of the church started playing the piano, and a middle-aged woman with a dark brown bob and creamy white skin stepped up to the podium to lead the congregation in song. Kait and I sat in silence while Tracie made an effort to sing along, writing the title of the song in characters onto her blue bulletin. The young girl on her left looked out of the corner of her eye to see what Tracie was writing, and when she realized Tracie could transcribe Mandarin, her eyes waxed into the size of two moons, and she grinned in delight.
“That’s my brilliant friend,” I thought.
When we finished singing, the pastor came to the front of the church. Apparently it was time for guest introductions because suddenly everyone’s heads had turned backward, waiting in suspense for us to stand up and introduce ourselves.
“Tracie, Rachel, and um…cat?” the pastor asked meekly as we took a stand.
“Kait,” Kaity corrected.
“Oh, yes, sorry. Well, who speaks Mandarin?”
Tracie slowly raised her hand. “A little.” She said this in Mandarin and the people around us practically fell over themselves in amazement.
“And are you all in school here at Northridge?” the pastor asked, looking directly at me.
I started to answer and then turned towards Tracie. “Say it in Mandarin!” I whispered, smiling.
“Wo shi xue sheng, ta yi jing bi ye le, to ye shi xue sheng.” (I’m a student, she’s graduated, and she is also a student.)
The church erupted in applause for about a quarter of a minute, and I laughed out loud.
“Welcome! Welcome!” the pastor exclaimed, and we took our seats to listen to the message, which amazingly started in Psalm 19.
Kaity opened her Bible, read the first few passages, and leaned over to let me read over the verses.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
No language where their voice is not heard--how fitting. Maybe Tracie wasn’t in East Asia anymore, and maybe I didn't speak Mandarin (and by maybe, I mean definitely), but that morning, we were both able to find a body of believers to connect with. Tracie never could have known this when she wrote me the email earlier that year about not wanting to leave China.
In a small way, she’d never have to.