Archive | being different

Thou Shalt Not Lie

Dar and I recently returned from a visit to Alaska, where I was struck by two curious qualities: the wide expanse, breath-taking vastness of the landscape, and the Alaskan maxim of working only so that you don’t need to work.

Wait, what?

Apparently, according to some people we spoke to, Alaskans work only so they have enough money to live on, rather than to collect it in the bank in case of something which may or may not happen in the future. This seems a strange maxim, you might say, to someone spending her days in the Silicon Valley, where people work for a variety of motives, none of which has anything to do with mere subsistence.

I like this idea of working only so life can be sustained. Those of you who know me, know that I have never shown interest in inventing new technologies, increasing the depth and breadth of human power over the universe, or collecting more money in my bank account through any of various means. In a way, I could say that I have struggled against my family’s (and my culture’s) tendency for ambition all my life. This has earned me the unacknowledged title of Black Sheep in my family. My father, in fact, once introduced me to a friend as “My daughter who is not a doctor.”

Perhaps I should move to Alaska and live for the moment, as it seems many people do over there. The thought is tempting. I love the Alaskan open spaces, the tundra, the mountains, and the wildlife. I love the relaxed atmosphere, the fewer cars, the few people. I love the idea of living so close to nature. I love the idea of twenty-four-hours-a-day sun, even if I have a hard time imagining twenty-four-hours-a-day darkness or 30-degrees-below cold. I doubt, though, that I would fit in Alaska society. It seems many people there tend to be more conservative about some things, like environmentalism or LGBTQ rights. And they sure do seem to be enthusiastic (almost righteous, I thought) about hunting and guns.

This is an Alaska female moose who identifies as salmon.

There’s many things I can complain about here in the Bay Area, but not those, for sure. People here seem to be mostly liberal. Take, as a case in point, my recent attempt to manage (behind the scenes) my son’s first foray into the world of college life. The young man, soon to be seventeen, is taking a class at a community college this year. In an attempt to make some money, the college charges for parking fees, not unlike many other universities and colleges around the country. So a few days before school started, I logged into the website and purchased the young man (who is also a young driver) a parking pass. After paying I received notification that the shipping will take ten days and that I will receive a temporary parking pass, which, however, never arrived.

What to do? Like the good, considerate, over-zealous parent I am, I called the school to ask about this. But I didn’t want them to know that it’s me, the parent, calling. After all, this is college, and it would be embarrassing if they knew the parent called for the student. So, with this logic in mind, I told the cashier who answered the phone that I was my son. “And you’re a high school student?” She marveled. “Your voice sounds so much older.”

Ah, the suffering of telling a lie.

Only after hanging up did it occur to me that in order to see the status of the parking pass, the cashier had looked at my son’s information and could probably see that he identified himself as male, while my voice (old though it may sound) was distinctly female. For a moment, I felt discomfited. She must have known I was lying (ah, the suffering of telling a lie). But then the relieving thought came up in my mind. This is California. The cashier probably assumed I was a female identifying as male! And the next thought knocked me off my feet:

In my Californian, crazily-liberal mind, it is much less embarrassing if the college people think my son is a female identifying as male, than if they think his mother called to inquire about his parking pass.

So this is why I plan to stay and continue to struggle against our Bay-Area tendency to rush and be busy and successful and ambitious. I live in a place where it’s (relatively) ok to be gay or transgender, or anything you wish. I live in a place where, when my kids go to visit someone’s house, I don’t really need to worry about guns. I live in a place where there’s fresh fruits and vegetables year round, and sunshine, and where being an environmentalist is only a mildly bad word. We’re not perfect (in fact, we’re pretty ridiculous when you come down to it, with our nail-polish-painted toes and our clothes which we believe say something about us, and all our other foibles which I won’t get into because it’s a whole other series of blog posts). And we still have a lot of way to go before this place is more equal, before we accept all races and all peoples and our responsibility for past and present racism and prejudice. And we have a long, long way to go before we stop using so many of the earth’s resources and live more rationally and with thoughtfulness. But all in all I think we’re trying and a lot of us really care.

So I’m staying here for now, even though Alaska really is such a tempting, lovely place. And, though my parents might be disappointed, I think for now I’ll continue to baaa like the black sheep I am, posting here on the blog instead of submitting to the New York Times, sticking my nose in the kids’ business, meditating, and preaching to everyone who would listen about recycling, using less plastic, and saving water and gas.

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Mirrors

I’ve been reflecting lately on how much I let other people’s opinions of me have power over the way I see myself. Yesterday, for example, as I walked out of the kids’ school, the kids (ages 10 and 13) were pulling on my arms as though we were at a carnival and they were 4 again. Two parents came towards us, smiled, and I found myself saying apologetically: “Somebody’s really happy to be out of school.” As though I needed to apologize for the kids being happy. As though I needed to apologize for my parenting. As though I was embarrassed. Was I?

Seems to me that my feelings at that fleeting meeting are not trustworthy. They were confused, because instead of looking inside myself to check how I was feeling about being pulled in two different directions by the exhilarated kids, I looked outside. The other parents’ reaction (condescension, fear, embarrassment, joy — whatever it was) may have been a reflection of something I felt inside, but now I’ll never know, because at the moment that mattered, my focus was not inside, but on the mirror, on what other people thought.

Mirrors are useful things. I use my mirror to put on my contact lenses in the morning, to check for ticks on my back after a hike, and to make sure I floss in the right spaces. I could manage all these tasks without a mirror, but having one sure helps. I also, however, use a mirror to see I don’t have anything between my teeth, to comb the crazy waves out of my hair, and to confirm that my clothes match. When I use a mirror in this way, what I’m really doing is seeing a reflection of what my exterior look like, what other people see when they look at me. But is my exterior, this outward shell, really me?

Buying shoes is a good example of what I mean. When I buy shoes, I put them on, pay attention to how comfortable they are by walking about for a few steps, and then I walk over to the mirror. The mirror shows me what I look like with the shoes — what other people see when I wear the shoes — not what I see when I wear them. Fshoesor that, I really only need to look down. I care about whether the shoes are comfortable, but I also care about whether the shoes look nice — to other people! Funny enough, I have a pair of shoes that is perfect for this example. They look pretty silly from above, like Minnie Mouse shoes, seriously. But from the side they look great — I know, because I checked in the mirror. Despite the fact that when I look down, the shoes look silly, I know that the people who matter (all of you, not me, right?) will think the shoes are great.

We are probably conditioned from infancy to pay attention to what the outside world thinks. We could argue that this is necessary in a society that seeks to be built on ethical and moral laws of behavior and in which many people and cultures need to coexist. Looking outside might even be inherent in us — our mirror neurons flare up and mimic the reaction of those around us. I want to believe, however, that my inner monitor is as ethical and moral as that of the rest of the world. Now that I am almost at the beautiful and invigorating age of 42, I am beginning to care about  what I look like on the inside much more than I do about what other people think. And no, I’m not going to start picking my nose in public or wear my bra above my shirt. But I hope always to remember to pause and look inside myself (whether before, during or after the reaction of the world) and see how I feel and what I think — to find out inside what is important and true to me.

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Too Old for Fun

photo of funMy grandmother, Safta Miri, has been saying that she’s old for well over 30 years. She just turned 96 last January and started thinking about the joys of reaching age 100 while at the same time threatening us with her imminent demise in order to get us to visit. For all her complaining, worrying, and often pessimistic outlook of life, my Safta still goes twice a week to ceramics class, paints, plays Bridge, visit museums, and goes to lectures in the cafe in her Moshav.

My family could make a claim for longevity. In addition to my 96 year-old grandmother, I have a 100 year-old great uncle, Dod Yigal, who also lives in Israel. Another uncle of my grandmother’s passed away just a few years ago at over 100 years old. My Dod Yigal claims his longevity is due to his eternal curiosity. “I always want to know what the new iphone will look like,” he said to me last year. Like my Safta, he also does ceramics, dances, goes to the symphony, and more.

Age 41 might seem incomparably young next to these golden agers, but lately I’ve been feeling awfully old. I look at myself in the mirror and don’t try to count the wrinkles. Even my hair is slowly getting sprinkled with salt. But it’s not really how I look that is having me think of my will, burial plan, and what the next world might be like –my main problem is that I feel old. Partly, I am blaming my early advance into dotage on not exercising and hiking enough for the past three months. I think, however, that this feeling of creeping old age might be an objective fact of life. Yesterday’s excursion to the Fun concert illustrated just how old I’ve become.

If you’re wrinkling your brow and asking “Fun?” stop it right now. Your question shows your age and your facial expression is only making those wrinkles more likely to last. Fun is a rock band. They make noise and call it music and have a lot of fans. I hated the loudness: the shrieking of the guitars, the screaming of the singer, the positively frenzied beating of the drum. I hated the lemming syndrome that had nearly 10,000 people pumping their arms high in the air at the same time.

I loved that my son sat next to me, that he wanted to share his favorite songs. I loved how he sang with passion when “Some Nights” came on. I loved his arm around me or my arm around his shoulders, that he leaned into me. I loved how he tries to protect me sometimes.

I felt old at the concert, out of sync with the times, but what made me feel truly old came when we started walking back to the car. The doors, porches and sidewalks of Berkeley’s frat houses were filled with partying young people. I don’t know what the boys were wearing — regular clothes, I think. But the girls… the girls…. The feminist revolution had not, I think, yet reached the frat-house corners of the Berkeley campus. The girls were wearing what I can only describe as Victoria’s Secret nighties. Except more skimpy and with high heels.

I am too old for fun, my friends. My daughter is 10, and she is not going to college — I don’t think I can allow it, at least not before she turns 54. And me? Well, I am not going to any more concerts. My ear drums still hurt, and though we went to sleep at 1am, I still woke up at my almost regular 6:30am. I need my sleep, my bed, my anti-wrinkle cream. I need peace and quiet and tranquility and no screaming band in my ears. And I would so much rather girls didn’t dress the way they do, that they respected their bodies and didn’t even realize that they could use them to attract attention. But perhaps I am too naive and too old. What do I know?

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In Favor of Belly Liberation

In the MBA program I attended in Israel, I had a brilliant, funny, and really hot Strategic Games professor. One day in class he asked us the following questions:

“How many of you suck in your stomachs while wearing a bathing suit?”
The response: Lots of titters, red faces, one hesitant hand (not mine, of course).

“How many of you suck in your stomach while wearing shorts?”
A few nodding heads, some hands (not mine, of course).

“Do any of you suck in your stomach while wearing a coat?”
Full-out laughter. Most everyone shaking their heads.

“Does anyone suck in his or her stomach all the time?”
Lots of uncomfortable shifting in the chairs.

Our world is a flat, six-pack-stomached world. In our dreams, of course. It is a world in which tanned, six-feet tall women with concave bellies weigh a mere one-hundred-and-twenty pounds and jog on the beach in skimpy bikinis, hand in hand with even more tanned, six-pack-stomached, six-foot-seven tall men. On television commercials, at least. If we want to fit in with this make-believe world, we need — a diet? or, quite plain and simple, to suck in our tummies.

For one moment, close your eyes and imagine a world of people sucking in their tummies. Imagine the constriction, the pressure, as we refuse to let those bellies have some air. Imagine the mark left by button on skin made by wearing too-tight jeans. Ask yourself, just for this moment, what would happen if we allowed ourselves to breathe into our bellies, to expand them and make room for all our fabulous inner organs? The belly is the very center of our being. What would happen if we let it just be the way it was born to be?

Frans and Bronwen Stiene, authors of The Japanearch bellyse Art of Reiki, often mention a point three inches below the navel. This point is called Hara in Japanese and literally means belly. The Stienes refer to it as the Earth Center. This is what the Stienes write about the Hara in one of the articles on their website: “Energy is stored at this point from where it expands throughout the whole body. This is the energy you are born with, the energy that is the essence of your life and gives you your life’s purpose and stamina. It is not just the energy that you receive from your parents when you are conceived but most importantly it is the energetic connection between you and universal energy.” Yet most of us constrict that energy all day long by sucking in our bellies.

I am self conscious about my belly. I’ve written about it before. I wish I had that concave belly without stretch marks. But this is the belly I was born with, the belly that shows the marks of my children’s births as well. It is my belly, and I do so wish I could be proud of it, that I could breathe into it to my heart’s content without thinking how many months pregnant it makes me look. I wish that instead of worrying about fitting in with absurd social norms, I would only breathe in and out with the energy of the world.

There are so many wonderful round things in our world: the sun, the earth, an orange, a pregnant belly, a bowling ball. Perhaps it is time for the round revolution, from concave to convex. A belly liberation. The freedom to inhabit our bodies in every shape and form.

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Gift of Love

In elementary school, I was a social outcast. I was not alone, of course. I was the bespectacled, nose-dripping outcast, but there were also the fat outcast, the too-tall outcast, the too-short outcast, and a boy and a girl who were outcasts apparently only because of their race. My class was extremely hierarchical, with three class queens and three kings, and we stayed the same group for five years, with the same kings and queens and the same outcasts.

A few days ago I was listening to Tara Brach’s True Refuge. The author was telling the story of Amy, who had a difficult childhood with a mother who neglected and rejected her. In her sessions with Tara, Amy managed to experience the anger which she had kept in check for years and to express the fears beneath: of never finding love, of not being worthy of love, of being alone in the world. Tara called it experiencing soul sadness.

In that moment, for a split second, I saw myself as a bleeding, mucusy, open wound, a whole-body sore. And I realized: This is how I walk around. This is what I am hiding. In my mind’s eye, I instantly knew when it started. Elementary school.

We switched seats that day, and the teacher partnered me with Matat, one of the class queens. In front of the class, Matat said: “I don’t want to sit next to her.”  But the teacher insisted, and as Matat slid into the seat next to mine, she whispered: “Stop sneezing and wiping your nose like that.”

Other than that split-second knowledge that I was a trembling, bleeding, mucusy, open wound, I had not been able to feel any emotion about this event. It was as though I had no feelings about it at all. I knew I needed to heal the wounded body and clear the hurt from my heart by forgiving Matat, but I could feel no real hurt and no compassion for her, and without any emotions, I didn’t know if it was possible to forgive at all.

I decided to try a forgiveness meditation (also from Tara Brach’s book). I settled myself into my cushion and slipped into my body thirty years ago: thick glasses covering half of my face, light brown hair twisted into two long but messy braids, a drippy, red nose, and a skinny body. And there was Matat, refusing to sit next to me, and a heaviness choked my throat.

All I wanted was to be loved, to be appreciated. Scooting down in the chair, I held the sneezes back and tried hard not to wipe my nose before absolutely necessary. There was no room for me to exist. I could feel the weight on my back (ah, said a voice in my grown-up head, that’s when you became a turtle), in my throat, in my heart.

Holding that little girl with compassion, sending her love, I began to murmur a lovingkindness meditation. May you be happy, may you be well, may you be filled with lovingkindness and joy. Then, realizing turtlethat she is me, I started anew: may I be happy, may I be well; may I be filled with compassion for myself and others.

Matat means gift in Hebrew. As I went through the meditation, I realized that by forgiving her, I am giving myself a gift. A gift of love.

I hug to my heart the wounded little girl I was thirty years ago and begin to let go of rejection and shame. As space clears in my heart, and I allow myself to expand into it, healing all hurt. I hold myself as a child and whisper: I am here; I love you; I appreciate your wisdom and originality, your quirky sense of humor, the doodles on your notebook, and the used tissues thrown about everywhere.

Then, I am ready:

I feel the harm that has been caused, Matat, and to the extent that I am able, I forgive you.

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Conformism Individualism Right to Live as We Are-ism

Yesterday I asked a friend, “Do you think there are people who feel they are like everybody else?” My friend started laughing and answered, “You. You are exactly the same as everyone. Not different at all. You fit in perfectly.”

My entire life (and it’s been 40 years!) I have struggled with the issue of belonging. I was an odd duckling in first grade, an odd owl in seventh grade and the odd Jew at the Christian girls-only high school my parents sent me to in South Africa. I still feel very odd today.

In first grade I blamed my differentness on the fact that everybody else knew each other from kindergarten while I had just moved from Haifa. Later I felt different because of the physically-distancing thick lenses of my glasses. In the army I attached great importance to the fact that I was the only soldier whose parents lived in the U.S., and that I never went through the Israeli matriculation exams. Also, I hadn’t watched “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and I didn’t know that “Roxanne” was sang by The Police till I looked it up this morning. A lost cause.

Brene Brown, in her book Gifts of Imperfection, distinguishes between belonging to a group and fitting in. Fitting in means giving up certain aspects of our personality in order to be like others in the group. To belong, however, we must be truly ourselves. I love this distinction. My social chameleon skin is slow and often too confused to change. Of course, being myself hasn’t quite helped me either.

But might everyone feel different the same way as I? Margaret Mead said, “Always remember, you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” Friedrich Nietzsche, in a strangely-optimistic quote, said, “At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.” Some quotes celebrate uniqueness, but others tell the truth and admit that being different is hard. As e.e. cummings said: “To be nobody but yourself in a world doing its best to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can ever fight and never stop fighting.”

I wonder if belonging, ultimately, is about opening up to the opportunity of belonging. Could I, for example, have belonged to that group of girls in my army training? Was it me who kept myself aloof? Was I too attached to my differences and failed to see any point of similarity to those twenty-three girls I looked at as the group?

I think I’ll start an “I am different, hence I belong” group. You can come even if you watched the “Rocky Horror Show.” No credentials necessary. You can be the same if you want.

The DUFF

I remember myself, in my first few months in the Israeli army, telling myself I was different from the other girls. My parents lived in California. I didn’t finished high school in Israel. I didn’t like the same music or movies as them. Once I told myself this story, I documented and verified it with every available clue, and finally it became the Truth. Looking back with a wisdom acquired over twenty years of feeling different, I know this was a story I told myself and not a truth. Perhaps back at nineteen it was easier for me to make myself different — to reject myself before I risked rejection from the other girls.

I therefore tend to identify with characters who feel like they do not belong, such as Bianca, the protagonist in Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF. I enjoyed reading the novel with its romance, sex, conflict and high drama. But I think what most gripped me is that it made me think. I love it when a book does that!

For those of us who are clueless (like I was), DUFF is acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca is told she is the Duff by Wesley, who she herself has pigeonholed as a male slut. Starting with these stereotypes, Keplinger then proceeds to shatter whatever beliefs Bianca holds about herself, her parents, her friends, and of course Wesley, because stereotypes, after all, rarely describe who we really are.

So is Bianca the Duff because she is not blond and has non-existent breasts? or is her friend Casey the Duff because she is as tall as a giraffe? or is her other friend Jessica the Duff because of her airy, flaky personality? And who decides who the Duff is, anyways? Wesley calls Bianca the Duff, but it is Bianca who identifies herself with the word and makes it her own cross to bear. Only toward the end of the novel, when she confesses the word to Jessica and Casey, does she discover that each of them believes it refers better to herself.

Bianca learns compassion in the novel, and most of all, she learns compassion for herself. She understands the common humanity she shares with everyone else: “I should be proud to be the Duff. Proud to have great friends who, in their mind, were my Duffs.”

I have to admit, at the beginning of the novel, before I got to know Jessica and Casey, I resented them. I liked Bianca, and I didn’t want her to be the Duff. I thought she was the Duff because they made her so, that they hang out with her because she made them look better. So I loved this twist! I loved how their friendship truly came from the heart, from the places where they each most felt vulnerable. I agree with Bianca when she accepts Wesley’s assertion that he is not the Duff, telling him flatly: “That’s because you don’t have friends.”

Once a Witch — Fun Read from Carolyn MacCullough

Last night I went to sleep at 10:30 because I wanted to finish reading Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough. I read the book on the kindle iPad app, and discovered, once again, how difficult it is for me to read a book when I can’t skip ahead to see what happens.

I suppose it is possible to do that on the app, but I haven’t quite mastered all the options, and anyways, it wouldn’t be the same. I like to skim through the book to find conversations, names and locations and learn more about the plot. On the app, turning the pages is very different from flipping through paper and letting luck lead me to an interesting page. Often I read the ending. Knowing the end does not interfere with my enjoyment of the book. I love seeing how an author works toward the resolution, and I love being surprised by the author’s choices in getting there.

Once a Witch is fun to read. Tamsin, the main character, is the only one in her family who does not have a magical talent. Her father controls weather patterns. Her mother winks in and out of rooms. Her grandmother reads minds, and her sister can talk you into doing anything she wants. The other members of her family all have talents as well, but Tamsin, who was prophesied to be a “beacon” to the family, has no talent at all.

I tend to identify with characters who feel alienated from everyone around them. Tamsin is different twice: she is different from all the other teens (represented by her friend Agatha) because she belongs to a witchy family. But she also does not belong with her family, because she is the only one who is not really a witch. I thought that a great concept.

Tamsin is asked by a mysterious (and good looking) man who mistakes her for her sister to find a clock for him that has been lost a hundred years ago. She is enthusiastically assisted by her witchy friend Gabriel whose talent is for finding lost items and for traveling through time — how convenient.

Finding the clock leads to a lot of trouble. Traveling through time has consequences, and Tamsin must leap to the rescue of her sweet-talking sister and her friend, Agatha, both of whom are bewitched by the mysterious villainous man.

The book flows, is easy to read, and already has a sequel out titled Always a Witch. I like that it shows that sometimes feeling different is more in our heads than in reality. Tamsin doesn’t even begin to know what being different means until she discovers the secret her entire family has been hiding from her, and the story build to an exciting end.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109