oh god it’s wonderful

to get out of bed

and drink too much coffee

and smoke too many cigarettes

and love you so much

                                   Excerpt from “Steps” by Frank O’Hara

These past few months have been ripe with realizations, some of which have been long and slow-coming, floating in and out of my comprehension, and others have been abrupt and heavy. I’ve learned that it’s supremely easy to feel lost. The hardest thing to feel is as though I have not only a place but a purpose in everything that I do: intentional living. Oftentimes, without a concrete list or path in front of me, I feel adrift. Just three months ago, I would struggle against that feeling until I was frustrated and exhausted, resisting ever experiencing the feeling of a potential free fall into the unknown. 

For me, the path always seemed more or less predefined: go to school, get good grades, graduate from high school, go to a Very Prestigious University, get a Very Prestigious Degree, move on to a Very Prestigious Job, lead Prestigious Life, be Happy. And that’s fine because in many ways, I have been following this path very closely. Studying and persistently working did in fact, lead to good grades, which lead me to be Valedictorian of my high school, which, in turn, enabled me to get into a well respected college as part of a well respected university, more hard word, more good grades, more acknowledgement of hard word (read: highest honors in the forms of Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, pass with distinction for my thesis, departmental honors), more self satisfaction that I was doing exactly what was expected of me. But then that’s where my life expected trajectory faltered. Post graduation, I did not, and still do not, have a job packaged neatly waiting in front of me. And at first this let me down. I was accustomed to more, more, more. 

I felt as though I had failed, in my mind, my lack of a creative, challenging, well paid job nullified all of the hard work I had put into my studies and somehow rendered me invalidated, lesser than the people who had secured office jobs in legal firms, creative jobs in big white studios with lots of sunlight filtering through in their Instagram photos of their clean desk outfitted just-so with table top accessories: the monochromatic filing folders, the pencil cup that matched the seat cushion, a notebook open full of sketches and drafts; the people who had been accepted into medical school, pictures of their white coat ceremonies popping up in my Facebook newsfeed, the people who wore power suits to their investment banking jobs, humble-bragging about their late nights and big-perks. And yet, post-graduation, I didn’t know “what I wanted to be.” My work uniform has been a t-shirt and jean shorts, standing with olive oil dripping down my calves, flour dust sticking to the soles of my shoes, a notepad in hand as I eagerly bring trays of water and take orders, asking people how the food is, and could I recommend another beer?  

Between running up and down the stairs carrying bins of dirty dishes; holding big, burning plates on the tips of my fingers, plates stacked along my arms; maneuvering between crowds of people on Saturday nights while carrying twelve glasses filled to the brim, and mopping the wooden floors after midnight when the last customer has left, I felt convinced myself that I felt empty simply because I didn’t know what this new feeling was. On first thought, it felt like what I was doing didn’t have a place or a purpose in the larger schema. Yet, I walked away each night with a large wad of cash and tired feet, and though I didn’t even want to admit it to myself, a general calmness inside of me, a quiet kind of satisfaction. A very different satisfaction from printing my 50 page thesis I had completed just a few weeks prior. A different satisfaction from seeing a row of A’s on my transcript. A different kind of satisfaction that seemed to come from a deeper place inside of me, something that wasn’t recognized by other people, because what kind of “very educated” person chooses to work at a restaurant? For once, I hadn’t listened to expectations — not mine, and not anyone else’s — and I still felt accomplished. 

There was something about an empty restaurant with four other people who had worked just as hard, smiling and laughing, mopping floors at two in the morning, discussing religion and wars, beer and healthcare, heartbreaks and aspirations, dreams and duties. I know I won’t be there forever, and I know that I wouldn’t be satisfied if I remained a waitress for the rest of my life, but I’ve learned to enjoy this diversion. There is something viscerally wonderful about letting myself feel a small lull in life, an unexpected side-step instead of the much anticipated/expected “forward” step, that insatiable desire to always top my last accomplishment. I will never forget what one of the other waiters said to me when he had finally decided to move back to his hometown so that he could finish his college degree: he had learned that “a step back is not always a step backwards.”

A step back is not always a step backwards. 

If anything, taking three months post graduation to continue working in a restaurant has taught me many things about myself and about other people. A humility that I would not have truly grasped as readily before. A feeling of contentedness with where I am instead of where I will be. A better understanding of the context of how and why I have succeed, and where and how I need to improve. It’s exhausting constantly expecting something of ourselves, but it is necessary. Sometimes it’s just that our frame of expectations needs to shift. I was caught in the more-more-more mindset of always wanting, always feeling as though I had to justify something to myself. I realized that the feeling I was afraid of, that “unknown adrift” feeling was in fact just the feeling of being itself. It’s scary to sit and to just be. 

In all of this process, I’ve learned to truly appreciate those tiny little things that I never had much time or thought to appreciate before because I was so caught up in moving onto the next item on my to-do list. So, here is a new list, of little and perhaps inconsequential things that are joyful to me, but that in the end, surprisingly are what create those elusive moments of happiness I was searching for in all of that hard work:

  1. A well poured latte
  2. Stiff foam that I have finally perfected to make a cappuccino
  3. Lying in bed for thirty minutes after I’ve woken up, staring at the patterns of light and shadow, meditating
  4. Long walks to no where in particular with my puppy
  5. Chopping onions into very even slices
  6. Waiting one whole week for the next episode of Breaking Bad, which has become a (short lived) tradition with Keith
  7. Picking green beans that we grew this season.
  8. Cutting the stems of flowers before putting them in a vase
  9. Eating long, late dinners with good company
  10. Using the ice-cream man’s jingle as an alarm clock for my nap (he comes at the same time every single day which frustrated me at first, but makes me happy now. I grew up in a very secluded suburb so ice cream trucks were never a part of my childhood. I remember it drove down our street one time, and my oldest brother Marc stared out the window and yelled to the three of us — his younger siblings — that the ice cream man was here, and he grabbed some money and we ran out the door, but the truck was already gone. I’ll always remember that).  

Here’s to happiness in unexpected places, to the long, silent mornings, and the unexpected breaks. 


“Democracy without cliteracy is phallusy.”

ImageL’origine du monde (Origin of the World), 1866, oil on canvas, by Gustave Courbet

I first learned about this painting during my second year at Barnard. It was in a class largely made up of women, with the exception of one male student. This was fairly common in the comparative literature department at Barnard, one of the original Seven Sisters. And, one of the last few of its kind. I fully intend to write a post specifically about women’s colleges, Barnard in particular, in the near future. However, that is another related–yet separate–post.

To return to the story of the painting, the instructor was a middle-aged man, widely considered attractive on campus. He was, in so many ways, the stereotypical professor with disheveled hair and wool cardigans, theories on Derrida and Saussure, classically trained at a Very Prestigious University, a persistent look of concern and deep thought pressed into his face. I will refrain from going into too much detail about this professor in particular, considering I intend to use this specific class and this specific man merely as an example of what I believe to be a larger problem–a microcosm, if you will.

We began the semester with a short story entitled “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece”) by Balzac. In short, there is a master painter (Frenhofer) who becomes a mentor for an unknown painter (Porbus). The teacher has been working on a masterpiece (the namesake of the story) for over ten years. It is of a woman, and he cannot seem to find the inspiration to finish his piece. Porbus, his student, offers his own lover, a woman whom he loves dearly, Gilette, to be the model. In so doing, Porbus metaphorically prostitutes his love/lover in the pursuit of art, Truth, and Knowledge–something with a higher purpose. He offers her as a means through which his teacher can gain the last bit of knowledge he needs; Frenhofer must understand women to finish his painting. Her overwhelming beauty enables Frenhofer to complete his masterpiece, but with a price. After the painting is done, Porbus and Frenhofer admire its exquisiteness; yet, all that really exists is an abstract blur with an image of Gilette’s foot. The story ends when Frenhofer goes mad, destroys his masterpiece, and kills himself shortly thereafter.

My professor went on to analyze the story, dabbling in a Freudian analysis of the fetishized image of the foot blah blah blah. He also came to the conclusion that the moral of the story is, more or less, this: it is impossible to capture, to understand, to see the “je ne sais quoi” (the indescribable quality of/ the I-don’t-know-what) of a woman, and the pursuit of knowledge of women will drive, or perhaps more aptly, has driven men mad since the beginning of time. To put it in simpler terms, women are impossible to understand, and to understand a woman is to be mad. Which, in other words, seems to imply that madness presupposes comprehension of the “ever illusive/elusive” woman-figure. What I aim to deconstruct is the very illusory and elusive nature of women. I don’t think that these two words in this instance can be separated. For, the “elusive” nature of woman seems to me to be a fabricated illusion.

And I’ve thought about this exact idea for a long time. Why are so many stories, so many analyses of stories, so many personal stories about how “hard” it is to “understand” “women”? (I use scare quotes around women because oftentimes women are talked about as though there is one underlying truth that would suddenly make every single woman on this earth “comprehensible.” A singular truth of course implies that there is a fundamental nature of all womankind, another fallacy. At this point, I wish to furthermore question what it means to be “comprehensible.” This question of comprehensibility always begets the question of comprehensible/incomprehensible to whom? This is of course, a question of power. Who is the knower vs. the unknown, the sensible vs. the mad, the one who makes sense of something vs. the one who needs to be made sensible?).

Bear with me as I move to another anecdotal story. I was talking to a different man who I happen to be quite close to. We were eating lunch when the conversation turned towards the fact that I am in need of a good gynecologist. I told him that I was hoping to find one soon, but that I have had no luck since moving from NYC. His eyes glazed over, his face contorted, and his response was “Gross. Who would ever want to be a gynecologist?” I don’t quite remember how I responded, probably not in the most even-headed manner. Why is it that gynecologists are often described as “gross” to me? I don’t think that it’s specific to this one man, who actually happens to be very mature. Why is the response often a hushed, whispered inquiry when asking about a gynecologist? Why do people giggle and find alternate words for a gynecologist (my particular pet peeve comes to mind: “a lady doctor”)? The female body is so often enshrouded in silence, approached from every side other than straight on, which is why L’Origine du monde is so fascinating to me. There it is in all of its glory: a vulva, hurray!

The female genitals. Still misunderstood/not understood by scientists and people alike. I met a close friend of mine, a woman, who didn’t know where her clitoris was. This should be shocking, but it actually isn’t. How is a woman supposed to understand her body when society has taken its careful time to hide the female body, to expose it in an objectifying but hardly ever empowering way? How can women understand their bodies when scientists and doctors, largely perceived as authority figures on Truth (with a big, fat capital T) and Knowledge haven’t taken the time to fully understand the female body? I won’t go too far into this article, but it’s what has inspired this post, and it’s definitely worth a read and a re-read. The female clitoris wasn’t truly studied until 1998. That’s less than twenty years ago. This is astounding and infuriating to me.

The human body is undeniably political, from skin color to eye shape, height to hair color, penises to vaginas. (As a side note, I do not wish to create a stark male/female identity schema here, but I do wish to focus specifically on the female body/those who identify as women). A human body is political no matter how you look at it (and conversely, how you do not look at it). If the majority of scientists and doctors are men, if the majority of Authority figures are men, the simple answer as to why women bodies aren’t studied seems to be that it is, in many ways, irrelevant to their own male bodies. Yet, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, it is because to be male is to be the neutral. Female is the body that lacks, the body that is other than the male body, never in addition to the male body. The male body is what science purports is sensible, the female body is nonsensical.

What I am trying to say is that the elusive/illusive female body is only elusive and illusive because it is unseen. It is obscured. It is the blurred painting. Not because it is invisible. Because it is visible–but because it is never looked at straight on. Maybe the answer to the age old question of literature and the pursuit of high art, the pursuit of knowledge of the world and art through the female body, the thing everyone is searching for, the answer to the question, the je ne sais quoi of the female body is simply that it is a body. A body that does not lack, but a body that is often pigeon holed by the modifying word of female. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the word woman/female, but maybe there really isn’t something to “figure out” about women. Maybe, just maybe, a female body is just a body. And maybe it’s only unseen because those in power do not want to see it.