Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I lay in bed a few nights ago, thinking about the woman who would be arriving the next day from India. I would be greeting her. “It would be nice to wear a Punjabi,” I thought, the long cotton tunics and matching pants that I had learned to wear in India. But I didn’t have them anymore. “I could wear a sari,” I thought. I had plenty of those.

I had not for one split micro-second considered wearing my Indian clothes since I’d had a woman turn one of my red silk sari’s into a short, strapless wedding dress, cutting up a second sari for the lining. I had so many of them, even after the laundry next to the ashram in Ganeshpuri failed to return a couple. It had taken me a long time to notice that two were missing – the laundry, from long experience with Westerners, knew this was a good risk to take. 

As I lay in bed, in the dark, not sleeping yet, I knew I wouldn’t wear a sari to work the next day, but I could wear a sari, I thought to the huge fancy dinner Saturday night. I pictured myself in a perfectly wrapped, graceful sari, taking everyone by surprise. There would be a good number of Indian women at the global conference dinner, and it could be my way of diminishing the barriers between our cultures. I loved the idea. I got up and told Fred about it with the peculiar excitement I get sometimes when I’ve come up with something brand new. 

As soon as I had voiced the idea, I drew back. Maybe I should dress a little more ordinary. I shouldn’t draw attention away from the people who were the real stars of the night, the ones who had conceived of and worked for over a year on this event. 

And besides, I didn’t have a sari petticoat. 

The next morning, in the early grey of dawn when I could have been writing, I looked online for an Indian clothing store nearby. Nothing. I found sari petticoats for sale online, but they would not arrive on time. Who did I know who was Indian who I borrow from? 

A woman at work had married an Indian man and lived with her Indian mother-in-law. I Facebooked a message to her and she replied quickly. No, she didn’t have one. “My friend uses a regular slip,” she suggested, but I knew you can’t wrap a sari with a regular slip. 

I showered. I moved through the still-early morning, still at home. Another local friend who knew so many people also had no ideas. And then I thought of all the women in my town who had been or still were part of the ashram world I had once been so completely a part of. I went through a few possibilities in my mind, trying to think of one who would speak to me and quickly alighted on Yvette, the beautiful French woman who I thought would still be friendly. She was not one of the sourpusses who crossed the street when I came along. 

I Facebooked her. An hour later I left a message on her home phone. 

Yvette called back that afternoon, friendly. Of course she’d lend me one. 

That evening I went upstairs to the closet I rarely open and pulled out the plastic box in which I knew the sari’s were folded, the box I had chosen about 20 years ago because it fit under my ashram bed, the only storage space I had back then.

I opened the box. They were as fresh in their air-tight box as if I had put them away a few days before. Each one had its own story – this one had been a gift from Christina, the Italian friend of Antonioni’s wife. This one had once been Hemananda’s and I remembered the morning when Gurumayi had spread out Hemananda’s old sari’s and invited us to the secret conference room to pick one. 

I tried on the little cotton blouses, each one a different color but absolutely identical. I had hoped to find one where the sleeves were not so tight, but then I remembered how the seamstress, somewhere in Bombay, had measured me and made them all exactly the same. I could still get into them, but only just.

“Let me see if I remember how,” I thought. Something in me was eager to re-enter these waters. There was something I wanted to feel again. I began tucking and folding, but one thing went wrong. I clicked on YouTube and watched a 4-minute video made by a young woman  and remembered the step I had forgotten.

The dinner was now two days away. Will I do it, I wondered as I went through my days. No. Yes. Maybe. 

And then I was packing for the weekend, packing two other dresses that would work just fine. I just had to slip one over my head and I’d be done. And now there’s just a few minutes before my ride arrives and I watch myself pull out the ironing board, iron the blouse, choose the blue sari because the drape of it is so beautiful – the stiffer fabrics do not hang so sweetly – and I take them with me, still not certain.

It is time to dress. There is no mirror in my single room. “I’ll try,” I think.  “Maybe it won’t work.”

The blouse, the sari still look perfectly pressed. They have made the journey well.

I tie the petticoat tight at the waist. I get my arms through the tight sleeves of the little blouse and pull each little hook through the tiny stitched eyelets made of matching thread. I lay the sari on the bed, look closely at the silk to determine which side is the right side, the one with the strongest colors, and I begin to tuck, seeing myself standing in that room in Ganeshpuri, the cool smooth floor, the square column in the middle of the room, the two pink bedspreads, mine in the corner, Kevali’s under the window.

I pin the sari at my shoulder then begin the pleats at my waist, the tricky part.

There were always beautiful women in the ashram who wore their saris perfectly, like swans gliding. Though I had tried hard somehow I had never quite pulled that look off. You can look so frumpy in a sari if you don’t get it right.

I tucked the pleats in and went out to the bathroom to look in the mirror over the sink. It looked all right. In fact, I think I nailed it. How could that be – how could I have wrapped this sari better than any sari I had ever wrapped before?

I stepped out into the evening, the silk caressing me. I moved easily, at home in the garment that I knew looked like an evening dress, but that I knew I could stack wood in if I needed to. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I longed for Leela to be my friend. She said she was and all the discomfort that surfaced when I was with her I stuffed like newspapers into the cracks to keep the cold air out.

Leela had to do with being an artist in the city. That’s what I wanted to be. I had brought myself to the city, had watched as the sidewalk did not sprout friendships and typed pages like mushrooms, but there was Leela.

She had become beautiful since college. Her resume was so much better than mine. She’d become a model of all things, flying to St. Bart’s and Japan, showing up in Vogue.

I had tried it out in L.A. for about five minutes, had gone to a photo booth, taken four pictures and sent them to an ad. The man on the phone suggested I send him a photo with my hair down instead of tied back tight and somehow it just felt silly and empty and I wouldn’t win anyway.

But Leela had all that and a studio apartment in the Village and a job at an art gallery. She spoke of grown-up friends, like Jonathan who wrote for Rolling Stone and gave her ideas for what to read next. Paul Bowles.

She’d speak of these people casually, with a little laugh of amusement, and we read Oriana Fallaci’s autobiography and both wanted to be her: daredevil writer.

Leela had a large loom in her dark studio almost-unfurnished apartment. I loved the loom and that she knew how to use it, but when she and I went out to dinner she talked of how she wasn’t weaving.

We both spoke of becoming writers.

She talked of Milo, her boyfriend, and I imagined him dark, tall, sophisticated, sleek. And she had dinner with Salvador Dali who wanted to paint her.

Milo, the gallery, her model friends were in one world, and she kept me in a separate one. I wanted my life to flower. I wanted to be rushing to parties, and I was not. At all. She was, but on the other side of the partition, and I couldn’t quite figure it out – why I was not invited -- and answered those questions by not asking them.

She gave me a pair of earrings made of lapis lazuli. She named the stone as if it were magic as she handed me the small box in the tiny restaurant. I treasured the small blue stones. I treasured too the cast-off dress she gave me – not because it had been hers but because it really was a wonderful dress – blue and loose and long and flowing.

I was mad at her the afternoon we walked through Soho, her actually walking into the clothing stores that looked like art galleries, trying on cowboy boots that cost 100s of dollars while I wondered how to make $10 last the weekend.

I loved her face – the high wide cheekbones, the narrow blue eyes that became slits when she smiled. And I wanted my camera to capture what I saw. She stood for me once, dressed in black leather jacket, by the window of Jeffrey’s empty apartment where I was camping out. She stood by the window as I held up my mother’s 35mm Exakta, the one she had passed on to me, and I hoped for a rich black and white portrait of this face I loved to look at, and I printed two shots on 8x10 paper – one where she is looking at the camera like a model, and the other where she is laughing and blurry. Neither was what I wanted exactly.

She wrote to me two years ago, an email. There it was, her name in my inbox, as if I had always known it one day would be.

We spoke on the phone. When we hung up I knew I would not call or write again. What was it? A cold cold wind on a barren wasteland – somewhere between the words and what she said, the allusions to things that again cost more money than I had ever seen, her presence a place I knew could not give warmth or nurturance of any kind.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Ann’s hair was short, thin, brown and straighter than straight. Her hair seemed to spring from one central point at the crown of her head to form a sort of cap.

Her name had no “E” at the end to fancy it up. Just plain Ann.

Her face was eager and friendly. We met during my first week of boarding school. She asked right away during evening playtime if we could be best friends and I said yes, not thinking about it very much. I would never have said no to such a request. That would be mean.

My dorm was down the hall from hers. I had been assigned a small room with two other girls, our single beds lined up under the eaves, and an older girl to watch over us, sleeping in a bed near the door.

The next day Ann told me with delight that she had jumped up and down on her bed shouting, “I’ve got a best friend! I’ve got a best friend!” and I was surprised. The event had not been so special for me.

But Ann and I remained an official couple for my three-year stay at St. Mary’s. 

She told me with pride that she came from a place called “the Lake District.” She spoke of it often enough that I could not imagine her coming from any other place.

During school breaks when each girl disappeared to wherever she had originally come from, Ann and I plus our small circle of friends wrote to each other long, long thick, thick letters. I sent mine off and waited for the responses, deliciously thick fat stuffed envelopes that the mailman pushed through the brass slot in the white front door, letters that plopped to the floor in the tiny front hall with its black and white checkerboard floor, perfect for playing Jacks.

My friends and I were Olympic-level Jacks players.

Back at school, in the evenings, after dinner and before bed, we were let loose, crowds of us in the long, high-ceilinged hall to play. Children ran, played tag, hide-and-seek, house – clumps of girls, each involved in its own world.

First we played Addams Family, a game I had been playing with other friends back in the States. But now we were onto something much more grown-up: Jacks.

The satisfying weight of the jacks, swept up with one hand, or flipped elegantly to the back of the hand then back to the palm, as the other hand caught the ball on its first bounce. It was a game to become proficient at, one we played night after night – Ann, Nicola, Lucy Ann, Madeleine and I – with possible visits from second-tier friends, sitting on the floor, each girl taking her turn.

Until Lucy Ann upped the ante, bringing a new game back from the holidays. Stones.

No rubber ball in Stones. Just stones. Stones gathered from outside. In Jacks you had the leisurely time of a rubber ball that would touch the floor and bounce back up to be caught. A stone, tossed in the air, had to be caught before it hit the floor, while some acrobatic was performed with the other stones, the other hand.

We climbed on board. After all, Lucy Ann had brought this game. Lucy Ann was my real favorite. Her face was unusually pretty, like a doll, and her singular talent, setting her apart from anyone I had ever known, was her grown-up singing voice, louder and more confident than anyone else’s, sounding like an adult’s. But it wasn’t just the prettiness and the voice, she was the most interesting, the one who saw movies during school holidays like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, movies my parents would not think to take me to. Her parents were divorced,. Sometimes she was with her dad, sometimes with her mother. She had an older brother. Her life at home more adult-sounding than mine. 

So I pushed to master Stones, but Stones was not a good-natured friend like Jacks. Stones had a harshness to it, a feeling of having to grit your teeth, but there was no going back. I had to keep up. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


I am here now, alone in the quiet of a Monday morning, not going with everyone else to work. I’ve pulled myself off the track and now there is nothing else except the white walls of my room, the white shelves that came from my parents’ house, holding mostly books from college English classes – poetry collections that span a few hundred years – Dante, Milton – the thick book of translated Japanese poetry with the picture of the sunflower on the cover. I like my collection of paperbacks. I don’t open them all the time, but I like having them there, steady companions, reminding me who I am, what I want.

I sit at the white wooden desk that my mother got for me as a child. I have a manual white portable typewriter you can carry around in a grey case, inherited from when my mother tried to teach herself to type. It types in small, cramped pica type, not the fuller Courier that most typewriters use.

I am here on W. 91st Street up on the fourth floor, and it seems like the right place for writing.

I don’t think too much about how to pay the rent. Maybe I can learn carpentry. So many artists have interesting off-the-map skills. I want one of those. Being a secretary is the worst thing I can think of, but this is what I have always done for cash.

I help two women clean up their apartment. They have been living together as a couple for 20 years and are splitting up. They have grey hair and I can tell they like me for my youth, energy and prettiness. I work mostly with the one who is moving out, she is the more quirky of the two, the one more at a loss. The one staying in the apartment has something tidy, organized, academic about her, a collection of ancient clay figurines from archeological digs lines her long window sills.

The one I help is an artist of some kind. She tells me about two carpenters she knows and I ask if I can apprentice with them. They are two young men doing fancy cabinentry in wealthy apartments. I tag along a few times, sanding, bored, I quit.

I do write a little. I describe the walk I took in Van Cortlandt Park, starving for greenery, taking the subway as far out of the city as it would go. I describe the gentle rain, the pencil-yellow leaves on the path, the abandoned car in the woods, the angry woman in the black tee shirt who glares at me as she passes.

This writing thrills me.

I move into a smaller room in the apartment to lower my rent and then when Natvar, my yoga teacher, the man who runs the school I go to three times a week now, the man who greets me with a huge smile every time I arrive, where I sit and drink tea after class with the same group of four or five who listen to Navar’s stories – when he says wistfully that he needs someone to rent the back room, I volunteer. It will be even cheaper than where I am now, and I will be helping him.