Tuesday, December 21, 2010


“What I’m saying is we don’t have the money.”

“I don’t care, I don’t care,” I was raising my hands now, holding them in front of my face like I was going to clap them together, raising them and dropping them with my voice, “I said I don’t care.”

“You don’t care that we have to pay more money? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No, no, that’s not what I said,” I was shaking my head. “I’m saying I don’t care what you say. This is my body. I will do what I have to do.”

“I think you’re saying you will do what you want, and we will pay for it,” Dad’s voice was rising, he was leaning on the counter, his palms grasping the edge, knuckles white.

“There should be plenty of band-aids,” I said to my mom later. She was sitting on the toilet and blowing her nose. She had a cold for the first time in two years. “Anne Lamott says when she was little there were never enough band-aids.”

Mom shook her head.

“Well it’s just similar, that’s all. It’s like me.”

“Uh, huh,” Mom pulled off her pants and stepped into the tub.

“I’m getting my computer,” I said, leaving the room.

I came back and sat on the edge. Her breasts bobbed on the surface of the water.

“I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad,” I started.

“I don’t feel bad,” she laughed. “Trust me. I don’t feel bad.”

Just then the front door slammed. Dad was home. He came in the bathroom and I walked out of the room.

“I’ll tell you later.”

How to Survive the New York Asshole

Move to New York.

New York is where assholes live and where non-assholes go to become those people’s neighbors.

When you move into your new apartment you will spend an entire afternoon discussing with your neighbors where to store each individual tenant’s bicycle, which you have not yet acquired the money to buy. When you do buy a bike, and you store it at the bottom of the stairs, you will receive a note taped onto your brown, leather seat that says, “This is not what we discussed.” Don’t make friends with your neighbors.

Take your shiny bicycle (which you decided to buy brand-new because Craigslist is filled with swindling assholes who want to sell you their 70s junker for $300) and bike in the designated bike lanes. Follow the rules. Wear a helmet. Only run a red light if you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that a car is not coming in the opposite direction. When a car, coming in the opposite direction, throttles past you with their middle finger sticking out the window, keep pedaling.

Pedal to Williamsburg. Williamsburg is the town with all the hipsters. Ask the first person you see—a boy who is dressed like a 1930s train hopper, if this is the town with all the hipsters. Ask if he is a hipster. He will ignore you. Find a place to lock your bicycle—a street lamp, perhaps, or a signpost. Don’t be alarmed when you get back to your bike and your handlebars have been meddled with, are facing the wrong direction. While a blond child dressed in a hand knit, wool sweater watches you snap your wheel back into place, he will scream and cry and cough phlegm onto the pavement. Don’t look away when his parents notice your disgust.

Purchasing anything in New York City is like an unwinnable game. If you don’t want to lose (every single thing) and become a homeless asshole, don’t carry cash. But when you do carry cash, only carry enough for a black cup of coffee—$1.50. Order decaf. Argue with the barista when they want to charge you $2.50 for a decaf Americano. Hold up the line (there is always a line). Tell them this is not what you would do if you owned a cafĂ©. You would not charge people an extra dollar for ordering decaf. Thank the barista when she hands you your $1.50 decaf Americano.

Americanos are for assholes who get what they want and don’t say thank you. But you are trying not to be an asshole, remember? So thank the bus driver. Thank your grocery bagger. Thank the person in front of you for holding the door open to the gym, because, after a few visits it has become clear that gyms are chalk full of assholes. Thankfulness may just take the edge off. Shower in the locker room before getting in the pool. Only take two towels. Wear flip-flops. Lock up your tennis shoes. Sign in, and dip into the lane with a big “M” painted on the opposite wall—your speed—medium. Swim at a medium speed. Watch out for other swimmers. Don’t splash water or flail your arms. When the man behind you pulls on your leg, DON’T cause a scene by asking him what the hell his problem is because his answer will be, “I just wanted to pass you,” which you already should have known. Each time he taps your ankle after that, don’t let him pass.

Ah, you’re chugging right along now. You’ve completed your orientation into the Park Slope Food Coop. Don’t dawdle on your paperwork. Pay your fees. Take your ID picture and scan your ID card each time you enter the store. (*Note: You will be eyed suspiciously, “treated like an asshole,” until the person with the scanner realizes you are in fact a member who has paid her fees and worked her shifts.) WORK YOUR SHIFTS. Buy organic limes and bananas and free-trade coffee and vegan sushi. Also buy “minimally treated” New York State apples. Minimally treated is a stage below organic, where the food is treated with pesticides. They are cheaper, and you need that extra $1.50 for your decaf Americano. When your cashier repeats, with a hint of condescension, “These apples are ‘minimally treated,’” stare at her, with unwavering eyes, and pull out your wallet.

Treat the books in your graduate writing program as examples of how to write. Say, out loud to your professor and fellow peers, that you don’t agree with the author’s narrow-minded assessment of the race situation in downtown L.A.—a place where, the author writes, “only the Mexicans come to work.” Don’t state the obvious—that you are white. You are an educated, white female. You are an educated, white female from L.A. who does not work. Because if you do your professor will roll her eyes. Return the favor when you see her name listed with a quote, on the back cover of the book, claiming the author’s racial critique as “genius.”

“Genius” is not how you would describe the children who you teach part-time in the Lower East Side. Promising is a better word. Promising suggests hope. Give the students the names of your favorite authors. Give them all of your energy and your last year of good hearing. Give them four hours of every single day. When you feel you are reaching them, check your bag. They have stolen your phone. Find a higher paying job.

Phones with Internet tracking devices are over-rated. Check the map you’ve tacked against the white plaster wall of your 60-square-foot bedroom, and scribble directions onto a small slip of paper that you will stuff inside your back pocket before mounting your bicycle. When you get lost beneath the Brooklyn Bridge two hours later, drenched in sweat and shaking from hunger and fear, interrupt a woman’s meditation routine. Borrow her Internet tracking device.

Decide you still believe in God. Decide you still believe in Jesus. Continue to attend church. Don’t look down on homosexuality. Don’t look down on Jews or Muslims. Go to dinner with the two other Christians in your school program, and when you tell them that you’ve been doing a lot of radical thinking lately, they will pull away from you in visible judgment, and ask, if you “still consider your self a Christian?” Don’t get upset. Don’t throw the pumpkin milkshake they have bought you onto the floor. Okay, get upset, but don’t throw the milkshake.

Milkshakes are for suckers. Drink beer. Get onto the subway—two beers in—with a guitar and a keyboard and your band mate, and arrive late to your show. Play hipster-music for a crowd full of hipster-kids. Try, with all your might, not to laugh when you realize this is the one time you have not been treated like an asshole.

Humans with penises make great assholes. Turn down every man who tries to sleep with you—this will be every man you meet. Don’t take it personally when the first man you turn down shrugs his shoulders and insults your hair. Also don’t take it personally when, at a feminist poetry reading, one man sits so close to you his arm rubs up and down your thigh each time he bends down to “stretch.” Tell the first man that you don’t like his thrift store cowboy shirt. Jab the latter man in the neck with your elbow when you raise your arm to ask a question. Find a decent man who is not obsessed with his penis.

Penis is not a word you typically use. Use it three times in two paragraphs and post it on your blog.

Blog less and less every month because you’re spending all remaining time learning how to survive in New York.

New York is not like California. Move to New York and tell people, repeatedly, how much New York is not like California.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More "I Remembers"

I remember going to watch my brother’s baseball games in Petit Park.

I remember ordering hot chocolate with my parents at Starbucks and thinking it tasted like coffee.

I remember putting up the Christmas decorations with my mom every first Friday of December.

I remember getting angry when Christmas decorations were put up in shop windows “too early.”

I remember the smell of my old stuffed animals.

I remember jumping on the bed to get tucked in at night and sticking my legs up in the air so my mom could pull my socks off.

I remember stewed cabbage.

I remember spitting stewed cabbage out in a napkin before we had a dog.

I remember my dog wouldn’t eat mushrooms but loved carrots.

I remember taking Daisy on walks before the sun went down.

I remember hopping the fence at the park to hike around the cement flood drains.

I remember the look of our house—all bright and warm with the smell of cooking meat, greeting us when we got home.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Exercises in Memory

For Kristen

I look just like my mother.

I found a picture of her once in her jewelry box where she’s standing next to her yellow car; it’s the 1960s. Her hair is the same shade as the car—“A mistake with the bleach,” she explained later.

In the picture she leans against the passenger side door in the driveway of her parent’s house in Racine, Wisconsin. She’s smiling hugely. I recognize her smile, her teeth. When I brush my teeth I see that smile. When I laugh and sing, my lips slide open, and my mother appears.

*  *  *

It was spring. I had a pink and white, checkered dress that I could pull over my head without thinking about shorts or pants, tops, colors, matching. All I needed was my dress and my underwear.

The sun was bright and made the stucco on the houses blinding. I walked through the kitchen, past my brother taking a sip out of the milk carton, and through the den where my dad sat watching football and drinking a beer. The garage was dark and cool, and I pressed the button with my pointer finger to open the door—brrrrrrrr, the frames of the door rose above my head. I pulled my bicycle out from behind my dad’s camera equipment, wheeling it out to the driveway and kicking down the stand so I could run back into the garage and close the door. I braced myself, got into a runner’s stance, and sprinted through the slowly disappearing light before the door could hit me in the head.

I got on my banana seat, pulled my dress up past my knees to get the fabric out of the way of the pedals, and juggled my notebook under my arm. I was headed to my friend Caley’s house. She lived down the street, on the road below the hill where my house sat, past two rows of speed bumps. We were planning our club, Summer Fun, where we’d get the parents of kids who were small than us to pay us for swimming lessons and game days. Caley’s mom printed us business cards.

I pumped the pedals and headed down the big hill, singing to myself, “I feel good, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” I closed my eyes and rocked my shoulders back and forth to my beat. The bike started going so fast that the pedals got a mind of their own, and my front wheel began shivering.


Up and over and my handlebars came out of my grasp, my book went flying, and in a moment I lay on the ground, the hot blacktop against my cheek. My back tire pinned my legs to the ground as it continued to whirl, making a loud clicking sound. Two of my Indian neighbors saw me fall, and the last thing I remember is their bodies, running upside-down, to snatch me up.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Remember

Inspired by Joe Brainard’s I Remember…

I remember measuring my height and how fast I was growing by whether or not I could see my head (and then my eyes, and then my lips) in the bathroom mirror while I was sitting on the toilet.

I remember fat lips.

I remember the time my grandma made my bath too hot, and how I’d never let her bathe me after that.

I remember pouring glue into my school desk and letting it dry and peeling it off.

I remember Pink Panther ice cream from the ice cream truck.

I remember how my brother used to pronounce truck, “fruck.”

I remember pop rocks.

I remember not liking English trifles. I still don’t.

I remember being told to close my blinds at night when I changed into my pajamas. I never did.

I remember watching my brother play Nintendo, and waiting for my turn, and when I finally got to play, dying immediately.

I remember sitting by the fire and feeling the stones warm up.

I remember Jordan Gold and the time I wrote him a secret admirer note. I walked over to his house and wrote the address on the front and put a stamp on the envelope so it would look like I’d mailed it.

I remember wanting Sunday school to be over.

I remember not wanting Jesus to come again while I was alive so I’d be sure to have time to get married and have babies.

I don’t remember ever not wanting babies, but I also don’t remember when I realized maybe I don’t want them after all.

I remember pushing the veins in my mother’s hand down with my fingers.

I remember the smell of my parent’s closet. Like boxes of costumes.

I remember turning on the jets in their master bathtub when there wasn’t enough water in the bottom and how the water shot straight up into the air and all over the walls.

I remember crying when my hair was brushed.

I remember crying when I had to wear a dress to the Dodger game.

I remember crying at my fourth birthday party when I didn’t get what I wanted and being ashamed when I saw pictures of that later.

I remember Amy Dilgren calling her mom during the movie portion of my sleepover and how she left before dessert.

I remember my dog jumping up to the counter and eating the corner off my birthday cake.

I remember naptime.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Zoe with a "Z"

When I graduated high school I found out my grandmother’s real name. My grandfather, and anyone who knew with my grandparents back then, called her Janet, which was, it turns out, entirely made up. I understood nothing of names or what it meant to come from a specific country and to have a title that reflects your heritage, but grandpa was English, and that meant something back then. He should have married a Barbara or a Nancy. Zoe was too exotic, too hard to spell and to pronounce and to understand. Zoe was a foreigner. So in the end, he married Janet.

The thing about Janet was, and is, that she doesn’t speak English. Not entirely, anyway. She speaks a few words and phrases that make it possible for her immediate family to understand when she wants or needs something. She speaks enough to tell us when she’s upset, or when the car ride is taking too long, or when her wine doesn’t have enough sugar mixed in. But other than that, she’s silent.
Janet has impeccable skin that she rubs with white cold cream every night before bed. She has a few silk nightgowns, in pastels of blue, green, and pink that rotate based upon the season and the temperature. Right now her hair is short and yellowy-white, but depending on the last time my Aunt Sonia, a hairdresser from Florida, has come to visit, the pallet ranges from brown to pink. The brass clock next to grandma’s bed is heavy, purchased in England, as is most of her decor. There are porcelain figurines on every available counter space. Pastoral scenes of a girl with a lamb and a staff, swans with pink ribbons tied around their necks, baskets.
Janet loathes any part of Europe that is not the UK, especially Italy. When I told her I was going to Italy the summer before college she made a face like she had walked into a room with a bad smell. “Italians,” she said with a huff and a shake of the head. Once I arrived in Florence, and my best friend and I couldn’t keep the packs of Italian roving boys away, I could see what she meant. Italian men were desperate and hot-blooded, forward and eager—they were completely un-English.
This fascination with England did not, of course, just emerge from nowhere. Janet, (a.k.a. Zoe) is Greek, from a town called Larus near Athens. In 1943, when the Germans invaded Greece, my grandma, along with all the other healthy, able Greek youths, was taken away from her family to work in an internment camp. She was sixteen. The one time I heard my grandma talking about her experience was because my dad needed her to fill out papers for a property back in Greece that was being passed down to her from members of her family. She sat at our kitchen table and held her head in her hands. “I cannot talk!” she yelled. There are just some things people can’t stand to remember. I never dared to ask.
 When we studied World War II and the Holocaust in elementary school I became confused. My family has never been Jewish, but Christian. My grandmother was Greek Orthodox. I couldn’t understand why the Germans had taken her away at gunpoint and transferred her to Yugoslavia. For years I didn’t even know Yugoslavian camps existed, but instead assumed all camps were located in Germany. I also didn’t know the difference between death camps and concentration camps. I mentioned this once in class. I raised my hand and said simply, “My grandma was in a concentration camp.” No one knew what to say, and my friends just stared. My teacher said something like, “Oh, that’s awful,” and the class resumed. What else was she to say?
Years later, I finally broach the subject with my grandfather. He moves slowly through the chronology of events, his voice sounding tired and dry on the other line. I tell him I need this information for a school project, which is only partly true. For some reason old people tend to trust me a lot more when I mention that “school” is involved.
“Janet, I mean grandma,” he corrects himself, “Was taken away to Yugoslavia to a camp where they assembled military parts for the Germans. She was there without her family.”
“You’re serious? She was alone?” I always assumed grandma was with her mother and her sisters, a fact that’s been passed down and distorted over the years.
“She didn’t even have a bed,” he says, a surprised tone in his voice. “She slept on the ground, on straw, you know, like hay. And there wasn’t much food either.”
I stay quiet, sitting on a stone wall hedging the park by my apartment in Brooklyn, my legs dangling over the side. People sprint by, their feet slapping the pavement.
When the war finally ended my grandmother moved back home. But the moving and the running didn’t end. From 1946 to 1949, a Civil War erupted in Greece between the Greek governmental army, backed by the United Kingdom and the United States, and the Democratic Army of Greece, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party, backed by Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania. My grandmother’s parents thought it wise to send Zoe away. She was the youngest child, and still unmarried, so she packed her things and moved to her aunt and uncle’s house in Italy.
“Her uncle was mean,” my grandpa says. “Mean with the hand.”
I sit in silence on the other end of the phone line, realizing for the first time that it wasn’t that my grandma didn’t like Italian men. She didn’t like that Italian man.
In 1948, Zoe left Italy to vacation in England, in a town called Norwich, two and half hours northeast of London. Her friend from back home in Greece, Sonia, (which would later become my aunt’s name), had married an Englishman named Bill. Sonia invited Zoe to stay with them in their small cottage home, and for a few weeks Zoe escaped Italy and her uncle. She escaped the “roving boys” and the heat and the dirty city streets. She discovered what it looked like to have your own proper home in a more “respectable” country—an island just a plane ride away.
One evening during Zoe’s visit in England, Sonia and Bill invited over a friend. John was tall and lanky with a big nose, long wide ears, and dark brown hair. Dressed in a button down shirt, a vest and slacks, and cleanly shaven, Zoe must have thought him to be rather strapping. After their dinner party meeting, and once Zoe returned to Italy, she and John corresponded by letter. John, of course, is my grandfather.
“We wrote for two years,” grandpa explains to me over the phone.
“And then what happened? When did she come to you?” I wait for my grandpa to collect his thoughts, and sort through the years.
“I guess it was about 1950,” he said. I can almost hear the numbers whirling in his head, the years, and the memories.
“Her last name was Sirmakez,” he adds.
“How do you spell that?” I juggle my notebook and pen in my hand, and hold the phone with my shoulder.
“I don’t actually know.”
I smile, once again reminded of my grandfather’s unfortunate trouble with spelling. He never made it past the sixth grade.
Once my grandparents were married and Zoe had moved to England, things began to change. England wasn’t quite the ideal place for a new couple without much money. Many of the buildings had been bombed during the war, meaning that finding a cheap flat was a competitive venture.
“We lived in a shared housing,” grandpa explains. “The couple next to us had a baby that never stopped crying.”
Not the romantic, cookie-cutter home Zoe longed for and John hoped to provide, this was only part of their newlywed problems. My grandfather’s family did not approve of his choice. Zoe, as mentioned, barely spoke English. She could not communicate with John’s sisters and friends. She was completely out of place. The new couple tried their luck for a couple years, during which my father, Philip (both a Greek and an acceptably English name) was born. My grandfather began searching for something else, beyond his island home.
“We started receiving all these offers for jobs abroad,” grandpa continues. “Canada, Australia, all these countries were trying to get people to move there and work—to start their families.”
My grandfather, who often describes himself as an adventurer with itchy feet, decided a stipend to move to Canada was just the thing he and his new family needed. He accepted the offer, packed his things, and moved across the Atlantic to Montreal, leaving my grandmother and dad behind to meet up with him six months later.
“I got a job as a butcher and an apartment close to work in just a few months,” my grandpa says. He sounds proud, and considering the situation, I don’t blame him. “Your grandmother brought your dad over on The Olympia, a cruise ship that came from England and through Ellis Island.”
“Ellis Island? You’re kidding!” I yell into the phone and laugh. I’m amazed that another piece of history has somehow passed through the cracks. Now living in New York, I realize I can go and find their names. But I wonder which name it will be—Zoe? Janet? I can only assume it’s the first one, the real one.

Recently at dinner I found myself staring across the dining room table at grandma, this small, fragile woman on the other side, what was she thinking? As she scooped up her spaghetti with a spoon, pushing the pasta onto the utensil with her fingers, for a moment, time seemed to stop. The conversation buzzed by my ears, but all I could think was, What’s going on up there? She doesn’t understand what the people around her are saying. She has lived in the United States for fifty years, and in England before that, and she still hasn’t figured out what the word “appetizer” means. She doesn’t know the word “creative”. She can’t even say, “Congratulations.”
I often find it hard to explain my family to the people around me—the outsiders. I’m certain most people have this problem; the quirks of family relationships are unique, to say the least. I, for one, never felt like I had a real “grandmother.” Where was that old, white-haired lady who could bake me cookies and read me Roald Dahl and send me to the grocery store to buy ice cream? My grandma died her hair and sat in bed for hours a day watching black and white movies and cooing at Cary Grant’s image on the screen, saying, “I know this man.”
Once when I was very young she warmed up a bath for me, and the water was so hot that I was apparently minimally scalded, and as the story goes, I never let her near the bathroom with me in it again.
“Your grandma doesn’t speak English?” my friends would ask. They’d stare at her skeptically from across the room, and when offered to eat her dinner of Spanikopita, make up some excuse about needing to be home before dark (which incidentally was a good choice because, as I have found, being Greek does not automatically equal “Good Cook”). But the truth was, me not having friends over was always a benefit in my grandmother’s eyes. She was afraid of children, specifically sick children, and was thoroughly convinced every time I had a friend over that they had a cold that she was destined to catch. There’s no doubt about it, grandma was a hypochondriac.
But finally, as I travel and begin to experience the world and it’s cultures, grasping the history and the awesome unique-ness of my grandma, I’m realizing I never needed an apple-pie-baking, Coca-Cola sipping wonder. I just needed what I had—a wise old woman who loved me, and occasionally, when not possessing any signs of immune system weakness, would allow me to crawl into her bed, snuggle up against her creamy skin, and watch black and white movies, where she’d continually assure me, “I know this man.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sailing and the Plum Tree

For the first time since arriving in Greece, I woke up before the rest of the crew. For some reason, ever since I got aboard Reflections I’d been sleeping like a rock star in the morning, hung over from the UV rays and hypnotized by the swaying of the boat on water. When I was in Paris with my friend Raphaelle I didn’t sleep for about a week, but instead lay in bed staring out the balcony window. So sleeping, even on a hard bunk in a sailboat, felt great.
That morning though, I got up early, climbed up to the pilot house with a mug of instant coffee, and began reading my Bible. The Captain awoke next and came to join me in the pilothouse with his version of coffee—instant cappuccino mix.
“What are you working on there?” he asked curiously.
“Um,” I hesitated. I was still trying to be careful about how showy I was with my faith on the boat, knowing I’d be on board with these people for weeks and not wanting to create any unnecessary tension.
“It’s a study on the life of Paul,” I paused, “Which is really interesting because his missionary journeys take him around the Mediterranean.” I hoped Max would pick up more on the sailing in the Med than the whole “missions” part.
But suddenly Cap didn’t look so curious. He leaned back still clutching his coffee cup, his face hardening over. “You know what?” he said, “You don’t find God in a book. That’s not where you find Him at all. You find him in your heart.”
I sat for a moment in silence, trying to decide how to respond. How do you respond to someone who doesn’t believe in the book that’s supposed to guide your life?
“Well, I find God in other people,” I said slowly. “And I see Him working in my relationships.”
“That’s beautiful, Rachel!” I heard Terri-Leigh, one of the crewmembers, shout from down below.
My struggle with faith has been going on since birth. As a child I witnessed the unshakable devotion of my mother and godmother, Nellie, making it so easy to believe. To them God was as inextricably tied to life as water, like a sixth sense. Nellie was the person who reestablished my mom’s wavering Catholic conviction, showing her the Christian ideology of salvation through faith, rather than works, or rosary prayers.
Nellie used to take me outside to pray underneath the plum tree that didn’t bare plums. The tree had been barren for years. It wasn’t dead, as the green leaves as big as my four-year-old face proved, but I had yet to see the plums that gave the tree its name. Situated in the corner of our seemingly huge back yard on Hayworth Avenue in Los Angeles, on the small plot of grass laid out in a square behind the driveway, my main reason for visiting the tree was to swing on my wooden rocking horse. My dad hung the swing up with thick white ropes, and it served as one of my only escapes from the scorching summer heat. It was like my personal Garden of Eden in the middle of the city, the roots of the tree buried deep beneath the cement crust.
Nellie and I walked out and prayed under that tree every day, asking God to breathe life into its buds. It seemed so natural to me at that age, to be bowing methodically like a tiny student monk, my hands clasped on top of my bent knees.
Even more amazing than my solid faith was God’s answer. The following summer the tree bared fruit. We had the best plums I have ever tasted in my life. They burst open in my mouth, dying my hands and cheeks a deep violet color, the juice running down onto my little blue dress and ashy legs. We gave them away to neighbors in brown paper bags because there were too many for us to eat. Imagine that, too many plums from the tree that didn’t bare plums.
I want faith like the plum tree again—the illogical kind that doesn’t need explanation beyond your own deep, inner well that tells you to believe in something bigger than yourself. My belief system in general was tested a lot on the sailing trip. I found it really hard to live with seven different people with entirely different views about God and religion. Sometimes I felt like I was under constant scrutiny while other times I felt satisfyingly encircled in unbiased hope and love.
The one thing we all had in common was a belief in a higher being who created us and moves and works in our physical world. We also had traveled quite a bit so we certainly weren’t ignorant about differences in people’s cultural norms.
Everyone, even the Captain, accepted my Christianity for what it was, as long as I wasn’t being the judge about heaven and hell and who got to go where. I was careful not to talk about my spirituality in that sense. I wanted it to be more material than that.
“It bothers me when people talk about what heaven’s going to be like,” Rommy, my closest friend on the boat, said to me one morning. We sat on deck munching our corn flakes and staring out the plastic windows towards the water. “What does it even matter?” he asked.
Rommy was right. What does it matter? We aren’t in heaven yet, and we won’t know anything certain about it until we die, so why start making plans? Live for today. Live for the people who surround you. Find, as one of my professors always used to say, how to be “In the right place and at the right time, and still do the right thing. That is the best you can do.”
Unfortunately, while I don’t have to be Judge Judy, I still feel I have to be concrete about what I believe. Like, if I believe Christianity is the only religion leading to salvation, and if Christ is the bridge connecting us to God, is it enough to love God and your neighbor? Or, does a person literally need Christ to fill the hole in their soul that cries out for freedom?
I  always thought the Bible was so clear cut, especially growing up in a conservative, expository preaching style church, but now I wonder if I’ve been too close-minded, too intolerant.
Rosie, one of my crewmates from England, once told me how an old man who looked exactly like Santa Claus used to come into the grocery store where she worked in Leicestershire.
“I tried to be extra nice to him,” she said. “Just in case.”
The matter-of-fact-ness with which Rosie said this amazed me—complete honesty in one sentence.
Maybe I’m trying to be extra nice to this man called Jesus, just in case He really is the Son of God.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

California Centerfold, in Prose

      I flew into San Francisco quickly. Not that the plane flew all pell-mell, just that I was asked there quickly, made the decision quickly, bought the ticket quickly. And before I knew it, I had left San Diego once again, landed on the long runway up north, and was walking through the sun-drenched SFO airport to wait for my ride.
            “I’m in a bright blue truck,” he said.
            “He,” as in, I still can’t remember “his” name.
I realized once I got into the car, that maybe it’s time to start being a little more careful about who I work for. I didn’t even know these guys. Kyle texted me a few days earlier—hadn’t even called to ask if I could come up north for a while.           
“When do they need me?” I texted back.
            “As soon as possible. They’re ready to harvest.”
            The thought that immediately came through my head was, Oh shit, they must be desperate. 
            But then again, so was I. Desperate for money.
            After getting lost in the six-story parking lot, I found my way idiotically onto the street. My driver finally pulls up—bright blue truck, as promised.
            “So you live in Santa Cruz?” I ask, pulling the front seat forward and stuffing my bag into the back.
            “Uh, no,” he pauses, and laughs. “We live in Calaveras County. Didn’t Kyle tell you?”
            Sure didn’t.
As my driver and I chit chat briefly, I search the map on his phone to find Calaveras. Stretching out, east, east, east, past Stockton, and nearing the Sierras, I text my location to my roommate, and to my brother.
“Just in case.” I write at the end of the text. As in, just in case this was a horrible idea and I don't get reception at this random cabin in the middle of absolutely no-where-county. If the young girl in the woods screams and no one hears it, does she exist?
We drive out of the Bay Area and onto the highway, passing stretches of yellow hills, tumbling and falling over each other like ripples in a lake. My driver and I make pleasant conversation. In his Dickie pants and skater t-shirt, he reminds me of my friends from high-school.
“Oh, I love this song,” he changes the position of his hands on the steering wheel and looks over at me and smiles. I turn up the volume on the radio.
“Mason Jennings is perfect for a day like this,” he says. “I once saw him live in Santa Cruz, but the problem was everyone in the crowd was a couple. Except me, of course. The guys all stood behind their girlfriends with their arms around their waists, stroking and kissing.”
“Oh, god, I hate that,” I say.
He nods his head.
“All I wanted to do was smoke pot, but I figured I’d get kicked out,” he laughs and pauses to sing along to the chorus-line. “But this song,” he points his finger at the dash. “This song is when I gave up and lit one.”
“Really?” I stare out the window at my hand, cutting through the air like a hot knife through butter. I loosen my fingers and let them flap in the wind behind the rear-view mirror.
“Yeah, I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I lit up a joint and the moment I did, Mason looked up and said, ‘Smells good in here, Santa Cruz.’ That was the best concert I’ve ever heard.”
On the way to the house we stop at Rinaldi’s Market, a local grocer just outside of Calaveras, where, as my driver says, “People are always nice.”
“Do you expect people to be mean?” I ask.
“Well no, but,” he stops to get pull a cart from the stack by the sliding door, “Let’s just say there are other stores we don’t go into.”
Stores we don’t go into? Where am I? I feel like I really am headed back in time—back into Mark Twain’s stomping grounds. This is where he wrote his Jumping Frog about a hundred years ago, literally the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and, let me just say, I vaguely remember something in Huckleberry Finn about rivalries and family feuds. Is this what we’re talking about? A little Shepherdsons versus the Grangerfords?
“Why can’t you go into certain places?” I ask. We’re walking along the ailes now—he picks out pepperoni slices, cheese, and beer. I pick out apples and bell peppers, but who am I kidding? I’ll be juggling a meal of beer and cheese in about a half hour.
“This is a very small part of town,” he says. “Everyone here knows everyone else, so when I or one of the other guys goes into one of those family owned markets, they have no idea who we are and start asking questions. They suspect us of something.”
I don't ask what.

            We pile our things into the back of the truck and point our front wheels into the hills, winding through bumps in the road. He takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. I breathe in the smell deeply.
            “Oh, sorry, you want one?” he holds the pack out to me, and for a second I think I’m going to say no, but suddenly my hand reaches forward and takes one. He stretches his arm across the center seat to light me, an act I’ve always found mildly romantic.
            “I don’t know how this happened,” I laugh.
            “How what happened?” He keeps his eyes on the road.
            “This!” I hold the cigarette out between my two fingers, eyeing it suspiciously like I don’t know how it got there.
            “What, don’t you usually smoke?”
            “Not really!” I feel defensive, but also mildly stupid. Like I don’t smoke. Here I am, in a strangers’ truck, with my window rolled down, blowing smoke into the air. If that’s not smoking, I don’t know what is.
            “Eh, it’s alright.” He rubs his forehead with the back of his hand. “Just enjoy yourself.”
            I sigh, and turn my face into the setting sun to watch the hills roll by. Their backs arched towards the sky, they remind me of big yellow elephants. 

During the day we take breaks and load up the Bebe gun for target practice. I push the butt of the gun into my shoulder, right at the point where my arm meets my body, a little trick I learned while hunting in Virginia.
A piece of metal scrap hangs up in the trees, and as I aim, point, and shoot, a loud ding echoes into the forest.
            “You hit it!” the boys shout.
They seem impressed, which makes me smile. When I’m the one girl in a group of five boys, I feel I have to prove my worth. Boys are easy. Somehow hitting a piece of metal with a gun is all it takes to become one. I pull down on the barrel to reload, push a Bebe into the hole, and snap up on the handle to cock the gun.
“So what’s next?” I say, propping the gun on the railing.
“We have some turkeys on the property,” one of the guys says.
“Give me just one minute,” I say, walking around the side of the porch to the front of the house.
I pull on one of the guys’ boots, which are a little big, but at the same time embarrassingly not. Tying the laces up high on my calves below my skirt, I throw the gun over my shoulder, and motion for the guys to follow.
“Let’s go get us some dinner.”

           Later that evening,  I slip outside onto the wood porch overlooking the Sierras. Leaning on the rickety railing, the bars shift slightly under my weight. I crane my neck back and stare up at the stars, hundreds of them, popped into the deep night drapery like holes in the fabric. I can suddenly feel God’s presence and how truly close I am to Him, and how I need this moment more than ever to acknowledge that fact and ask for help and guidance.
            Give me the ability to let go of destructiveness, I prayed. And please, please, if possible, prepare me for what's next.
            Finally, with a mild sense of guilt, I whispered, “And show me a sign that you’re really here.”
            I stared hard into the stars, half expecting a shooting light or a meteor or even an airplane, but only a bat flew by, its small wings flapping into the darkness. I went and sat at the wooden table, picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and read a chapter about accepting pain and acknowledging that with time, everything will pass.
            My sign.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sun is Bursting Forth

The shadows are passing over this mountain,
And lately, faith is falling off in boulders.
What are the shadows?
And who conducts their changes?

From billowing clouds overhead,
They reflect and sway,
Swagger, two-step,
Slowly across the blue sky,
Their boot heels clicking the mountain base,
And tossing the gravel into pillars of dust.

From down here they are heavy and cold,
But way up,
Outside my time and beyond my sight,
Wind pushes these shadows into another horizon,
And the moment of darkness,
Is a small patch of misshapen black.
Covering what is truly,
A vibrant, fertile earth.

The sun is coming,
Oh yes, I can see—
The sun is bursting forth.

Monday, July 19, 2010

California Centerfold

Somewhere, in the yellow hills of Calaveras County,
Our truck winds through patches of sun and nut trees,
I don't know where.

The driver plots the way,
A line straight across the centerfold of California.
This is where we are, he says,
If the state could fold itself in half.

I roll down the window just enough to stretch one arm into the heat,
Feel the wind pick up my hair and toss it around,
Watch my fingers flap in the rear-view mirror.

At Rinaldi's Market, my driver loads up on 
Beer and cheese,
Sausage and cigarettes.
I eye these vices nervously—
Knowing it won't be long before I'm juggling all four.

Soon enough, up and up we go,
Into the foothills of the Sierras, 
Passing signs painted, "Goats for Sale."
Edging by stores that, he says, We don't go into.

Arrived, I meet the farmers,
Skinny boys with names from the Bible,
I’m older than they.

Their house is wood and honey, 
All summer campy and cool,
A porch wraps around it like a belt, 
Buckling at the front door.

We work methodically and hours fall fast,
Swept under the rug like trimmings.
And just as I start to feel crazed and stuck and desperate,
I take myself,
All tank top and skirt and legs,
And pull on boots
Stolen from the porch of these boys.

Trooping into gold grass, 
A turkey screeches across my feet
And the horses look up and stare.
The butt of the gun presses into my shoulder,
Peer through the scope,
Aim and Pow and Ding-Ding,
You hit the target! the boys shout.

Weeds with heads the size of small snowballs
Get stuck in Charlie Browns' Christmas tree,
And Oh, Holy Night, the stars coruscate
And I stare and stare.

Once again,
I ask myself
Where my map is—
You are in the centerfold.