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Monthly Archives: July 2008

i hold my breath a lot. i am not sure why, but i catch myself doing it all the time.

when i am in a particularly dark mood, i think it’s because i am waiting for a sledgehammer, some 500 pound weight, to crash on my head. “waiting for the shoe to drop,” as my mom used to say.

i guess i am pathetically comfortable holding my breath, knowing that some kind of disaster is just lurking around the corner, waiting like a menace, in a ski mask and a black jumpsuit, ready to pounce and smother me with pain. living in some sort of silent fear, waiting for it to strike.

as dr cohen, the smartest guy i know, said to me before i left, “careful, elizabeth, there are assholes everywhere.” and like a silly girl on a mission to save the world–and, quite honestly, myself— off i went to the tranquil land of cambodia, breathing breathing breathing, never once stopping the breath. never corking it.

well, maybe i should’ve been holding? plugging my nose, like i was doing a cannonball into the ocean? because last week in phnom penh, a lady came up to me and slashed my marimekko tote with a razor blade, in hopes of stealing my wallet. we were in the madness of the market, and dine and i were separated for all of 20 seconds, and she attacked. being a new yorker, and having been here long enough to know and acknowledge the differences in culture and customs of east and west, i knew immediately this lady was “abnormal” simply because she came right up to me, very close to me. see, in cambodia, people don’t really touch or hug or “invade” personal space. they say hello by giving you the prayer sign, never ever ever shaking your hand or doing the “bro bump” or a double cheeked air kiss. so i immediately pushed this woman, basically threw her off me. “hey, lady, i am from new york!,” is what i told her with my shove. so she didn’t get the wallet, but she got a huge bruise on her shoulders and her butt, no doubt. 

so i held my breath again, every time i went to the market.

yesterday, my bike was stolen. my beautiful black little 2nd hand bicycle, personalized with khmer stickers that i have no clue what they mean, was ripped off right under my nose, in front of the store, as we were pounding away at old tiles and throwing the mess into a big heap. snap! it was gone. 

and i held my breath. i tried not to cry, i tried not to think about the fact that there are assholes everywhere. 

but i did cry. and i did damn the asshole who stole my bike, under my held breath.

so today, in between the blazing sun and the relentless downpours of the rainy season, i went and bought another second hand bike. a black one. with a basket. and a bell and a light. same same, but different.

and i pedaled to the shrine. i bought some incense and a bunch of lotus flowers, shook my filthy shoes off and kneeled down. i asked buddha to help me not see the assholes anymore, to not bring more assholes my way. to let me stop holding my breath. i am sick of holding my breath.

from there, i went to the local pagoda, the one i painted back in april. i wanted to see the monks, and be surrounded by their tranquility, their peacefulness, their calm. i rode into the gates, and as is usual, the young monks wanted to talk. they go to this pagoda to learn english and study study study, and unlike my experience growing up around catholic priests and nuns who barely acknowledge your existence, the monks here want to know you. they surrounded me with “hello!”s and “what is your name?” in very studied, very staccato, english.

one in particular stood out from the pack. his english was very good, his pronunciation was excellent, and he peppered me with the usual questions like, “where are you from?” and “how many sisters and brothers do you have?” (i have answered these queries a zillion times to waiters, bellhops, tuk tuk drivers, etc.)

so i let go of my breath. and i asked him the question i wanted to ask (after finding out his name is vanny, he’s 20 years old, has been in the monastery for 5 years, and has 6 brothers and sisters.). “vanny,” i shyly said, “is there anything you can do for me to help me get rid of the bad luck i’ve had recently?” contemplating the question, he answered with “to have good luck, you have to be a good person, and i think you are.” at which point, i felt the urge to cry. he went on, “but i can teach you how to meditate?” 

we agreed to meet at his pagoda, the one where he lives, about a mile from where we stood under the frangipani trees sheltering us from the rain, at 6:45pm.

i figured out how to get there, changed into a more “suitable” outfit, and nervously rode my new bike over to the other side of town, not sure if vanny would actually be there, and scared that i was being a moron and not really knowing what the hell i was doing. 

there he was, waiting for me under the painted gates, having changed into burgundy robes.

we walked into the pagoda, and he whispered, “meditation is all about the breath. the wind. breathe from your stomach, not from your throat. and let it out of your nose, the wind. let it out.” he walked me through the throngs of white robbed nuns and saffron robed monks, all seated on their mats in front of the shrine. and found me a spot, with the nuns, who smiled at me, and brushed the mat off to make sure it was clean. he silently crouched in front of me and directed me to sit in the lotus position, whispering, “can you do this? can you sit this way?” and realizing my “suitable” outfit of skinny jeans was probably not, in fact, suitable at all, i said anyway, “yes, yes, yes.” and he turned me over to a toothless nun, who pointed to my stomach and said, in broken english, “from here. here. the wind. from here.”

i looked at the clock. 6:45. the nun looked over at me and pantomimed, “close your eyes.” and the orchestra of sounds, of melodic chants, a symphony of voices saying unintelligible things, began. i concentrated on breathing, and i was keenly aware of my stomach, my throat, my nostrils. and i got lost in the sound. i went somewhere else. kind of nowhere, but somewhere.

at one point, a little kitten walked across my lap. i peeked. it was calico, and tiny. clearly, a newborn.

the chanting stopped. it was silent. i cracked open my eyes. in front of me was a glass of juice, and a bottle of water. and the clock said 7:30. where had i been? how did that happen? where was i?

stillness. i was in stillness. and i was breathing, in, out, in, out.

the nun scurried over to me, on her knees. she said, “we are done. thank you for coming. may good things happen to you and be blessed.”

i stood up, not wanting to disturb the quiet of the others alone in their stillness. eyes still closed, breath still coming, serenity across their faces. 

i walked down the stairs to gather my shoes. vanny appeared. he said, “i will walk you back to your bike.” and we walked through the trees, the palms, dodging raindrops and falling leaves. and he said, “will you come back? tomorrow at 6:45? and could you come at noon and we can just talk? so i can practice my english with you?”

i took a deep, deep breath, from the pit of my stomach. “yes, vanny, i will be here tomorrow at noon. and i will be back again at 6:45.”

and the wind came out of me. i exhaled a very long breath.

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*DISCLAIMER: this list, these views, belong to the writer and in no uncertain terms does said writer believe that others will necessarily share in these personal views and observations; nor does she believe that these views and opinions are unique in and of themselves, nor are they special only to cambodia. the author asks that you not eye roll and say “DUH!” upon reading the below list and write her long diatribes about how things are equally bizarre in, say, columbus ohio (which is just about the most insane place on earth. oops, again, author understands not everyone thinks columbus ohio is inhabited by robots, and wishes to express her apologies in advance to those individuals who actually like columbus, ohio. she is confident you are still a nice person and you have blood, not electricity, running through your veins). 

1. never, ever bring your purse into a squat toilet. there are no hooks in the stall, and therefore, you are stuck trying to hold the purse will balancing precariously on your heels while simultaneously trying not to pee on your shoes. and avoid the 2″ deep puddle of unidentifiable liquid that slicks the floor. it is very difficult to balance your purse on your head, which is what i have been left to do at times.

2. don’t use the combs that are left on the sinks in nightclubs. not only are they filthy, but i witnessed a man scratch his back with one, and put it back on the counter. what, exactly, was he scratching?

3. when surrounded by people who are speaking only in khmer, which sounds a lot like “bibimbopmuymaochchchkmbop”, watch their facial expressions and chances are, you will get the drift of what’s going on. or, better yet, make up stories in your head about what they’re talking about and you will be very entertained when you later find out they were talking about politics, and you were imagining they were talking about strippers.

4. karaoke is hard. somehow, there are loads of western songs to choose from, but the background tune of your selection bears little resemblance to what you’re familiar with. so you sound like a reject from the first round of american idol.

5. girls don’t dance. they shuffle their feet and swing their arms in a 1″ radius. this is dancing here. boys, however, bump and grind and wave their arms wildly over their heads, bop and bounce and go mental. and they are straight.

6. forget trying western food in a land that knows nothing about western food. (unless you are in a 5 star hotel, or an equally “global” place). stick with what they’re good at, which is their local fare. like in sicily, you wouldn’t order chinese food, would you? no. you’d eat spaghetti bolognese by the ton. because some mamacita is sweating in the kitchen, making it fresh. same in cambodia. grandmas are churning out fresh noodles and chopping your mango and chile salsa-type stuff while you’re sitting there at their streetside table on a filthy plastic stool. i have yet to eat a horrible cambodian meal (yes, i did eat animal intestines which were gross/slimy and today i ate some minced pork in fish paste which tasted–and looked– alarmingly like cat food, but i believe that if you like cat food and you love pig liver, these would be quite delicious and well prepared.) but i’ve eaten some vile western food, including a pizza margherita which was made on pie crust. yes, sweet pie crust, like the kind you roll out from a can by pillsbury or if you’re lucky, your mom made from scratch  with flour, water and sugar (like mine did) and then draped over a pile of cinnamon drenched macintosh apples. to make matters worse, this “pizza” was crunchy and hard like a shortbread, smothered in something disguised as cheese. it was brutal.

7. while we’re on the topic of food, when in asia, forget about dairy. just wipe it out of your mind. there are no dairy cows here, so there is no milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, blah blah blah, unless it’s imported, which makes it extraordinarily expensive (for cambodia). oh yeah, forget processed sweets, too. chocolate? not really–too hot here, it’s like soup. candy bars? a few melted snickers in some stores, covered with dust. and some cadbury british milk chocolate with hazelnuts bars (does anyone actually like hazelnuts?). cupcakes like cupcake cafe or billy’s bakery? yeah, right. start loving fruit. ALL fruit. quickly. even durian, which smells so vile that it’s “illegal” to bring durian on airplanes (which is why they’re not imported), buses, hospitals, hotels and other public places. it literally smells like shit. seriously. but honestly, it doesn’t taste like it (as if i’d know what shit tastes like, but you get the idea).

8. people drive like maniacs. yes, they do everywhere. i realize this. i have driven in costa rica, mexico, been driven through india, vietnam, china, blah blah blah. for god’s sake, i live in new york, where taxi drivers are certifiably insane. most people are psycho when they get behind the wheel and the cambodians love the horn. here, traffic laws, if there are any, are ignored. one way streets are two way streets, actually 10 way streets when you count the cattle, push carts, tuk tuks, ox carts, stray dogs, barefoot children, bicyclists, motor scooters, etc., all vying for the same piece of road, all going in opposite directions. so you have to look 98 ways before crossing the street.

9. money can get you any thing, any time, any where. get a speeding ticket? (unlikely, since there seems to be no laws to uphold, but..) pay the cop a few bucks, and say “bye bye, arkun!” and walk away. need a visa extension? slap a tenner on the table, and voila! it’s yours. need customers in your store? slip a tuk-tuk driver a little something and he’ll bring people to you. corrupt? yes. accepted and openly practiced? absolutely.

10. don’t go to another country without a big, econo-size bottle of febreze. i didn’t and i am dreaming of that sam’s club sized beautiful blue bottle with the handy trigger pump. sigh.

11. just because you’re traveling, doesn’t mean you have to dress like a slob. why, oh why, are people wearing hiking boots here? they’re not hiking, they’re walking on sidewalks. or through temples and pagodas where you must take your shoes off. (i ask myself this in NYC every day: why do tourists insist on wearing white puffy inflatable enormous marshallow-ish sneakers? aren’t regular shoes comfortable?) why is everyone here wearing those vile “easy-pack” wrinkle free zip-off pants/shorts thingies from EMS? i’ve been told by local cambodians that i have “hollywood style”. they say this in awe over my outfits. and while i am flattered, and find it so sweet and endearing, i also believe/know that in their heads, they’re used to thinking, “WESTERNERS=STINKY SLOBS IN FILTHY TEE SHIRTS + TRAGIC TRAVEL PANTS YOU ORDER FROM THE BACK OF THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE + FANNY PACK + TEVA SANDALS + DOGEARED COPY OF ‘LONELY PLANET'”.

12. business practices are confusing and there are many people that just don’t get it. every time dine and i are in phnom penh, we laugh hysterically over the vision of 98 grapefruit vendors selling their wares in their carts all along the same stretch of road. within 2 feet of each other. then we turn the corner and there are NO grapefruit vendors. everywhere you look, people are lined up selling the exact same product in the exact same spot. and i think, “hmmm, okay, if i go to one and want to buy, say, a grapefruit from this guy and offer him .50 cents for it, won’t the grapefruit selling neighbor tell me i can buy one from him for .40 cents? and then this guy would say, “hey, lady, but i will sell you this one for .30 cents?” and so on and so on and so on?” isn’t this logic? i want to push their carts myself and place it where there are no grapefruit sellers, like maybe where there’s a park and people playing badmitton and soccer. (and they’d want this grapefruit.)  and i want to go up to one of the vendors  and say, “stake out a new space, somewhere else, and perhaps you’d increase your sales. let’s go!” right?

13. as in most asian countries, people use english words on the signs for their shops or on their menus. in tokyo, none of it makes any sense whatsoever–there is actually a clothing store called “squirrel milkshake” in harajuku–but from what i understand, they know this is jibberish, and they don’t care; it’s just for the “coolness factor”. (i haven’t figured out what exactly is “cool” about botching the english language, but..?). in all my travels, it’s provided loads of entertainment, reading these nonsensical signs and trying to figure out exactly what it is that they’re trying to convey/say. walking through the streets of phnom penh recently, i played a game. i imagined starting a business “copy editing” signs for people and charging them one dollar for each sign/menu i fixed, respelled, moved syntax around, helped with the grammar. in a one block stretch, i “earned” $25. oh, imagine what i could do in the entire city. i’d be sitting on an island in the sea of thailand or on the wide stretch of beach in sihanoukville, counting my piles of one dollar bills.

14. people are generally good and when they approach you, chances are they just want to talk, and practice english. so you can let go of your purse and stop clutching it to your body, like we do in new york when a random individual says, “hey, what’s your name?”

i keep thinking about that quote from jeanette winterson that leigh sent me. about the hole that someone leaves behind when they depart from your life, and how it can’t be filled, how it shouldn’t be, how it just is there. this hole.

this silhouette of a person, like in a cartoon when the kooky character goes crashing through a wall, and the imprint of that person is still in the wall. it’s still there, the shape of that individual still on/in/through the wall, left behind as a reminder, as they go running away.

like when we were kids making christmas cookies, using cookie cutters to press into the sugary white dough. i’d press the sharp edges of the santa boot or the candy cane and lift it out, this fragile little floppy piece of uncooked cookie with a spatula, and place the shape somewhere else, on the cookie sheet or waxed paper. but the silhouette of the boot or the candy or the wrapped gift, many many shapes and holes were left in the dough. and we’d roll up what was left, the remnants, and try to roll it out again, but the holes made it thinner, less yummy and chunky and tasty. 

can you really ever make things the same again? can you–actually, can I?– be yummy and tasty and new and ever whole again? the gaping silhouettes, the emptiness and the hollowness of everyone who’s gone is still there, just hiding underneath the shell of me, and i keep collecting my whole being, my self, rolling it up into a ball, and laying  it all out again, over and over, and yet, there’s less of me to spread out. less of everything. i’m less. there were major, huge, enormous people who crashed through my wall–my dad, ann, my ex-husband–and i haven’t figured out how to put that spackeling stuff, that creamy, wet, sticky glue stuff that contractors use to fill up all those holes in those apartment walls after the inhabitants move out, move on and leave, into me. 

dad, how do you cope with your holes? how did you walk away from 4 kids and a wife and just go? and never turn back? are there silhouettes of us in you? how have you lived with those holes? what are they filled up with?

i can’t treat my holes like they’re not there. they are there. they nag at me and remind me and sometimes when i am alone at night, and i hear the silence on the other side of the window, i hear the silence inside of me. the holes are echoing. no moss grew on them, no manhole cover was placed on top, no cork.  

i once bounced on a trampoline at melissa mcmanus’ house in 7th grade and my silver heart bracelet i made in shop class punctured, ripped actually, a hole in my wrist as i landed on my hand, on my butt, on this spring day with melissa and ann and bobby and johnny basili (they were twins, too). ouch ouch ouch, bleeding bleeding more bleeding, hmmm, maybe i should get stitches? nah, be cool, no biggie in front of the boys, suck it up–funny that it was a heart that hurt me so much, a prelude of things to come–and eventually, after the bleeding stopped and it scabbed over, i was left this raised and ragged bump on my arm, where my left wrist meets my hand, and while it no longer hurts, no longer itches or annoys, it’s still there, after 30 years, it’s still fucking there.

i will never forget the last face-to-face conversation i had with my ex. he said to me, “you cry, i walk.” and i remember being dumbfounded, albeit awash in tears within seconds (and true to his promise, he did indeed WALK), because i thought, “you just ripped a gigantic hole in me, and you’re commanding me not to feel it? or you’ll ‘walk’? but didn’t you just plow through me head first with the intention of running once you got through to the other side?”

tony, do you not see the hole? isn’t it clear? you just put an electric drill into my chest cavity, burrowing it right into my heart, carving out the shape of you. like a jigsaw. out to the other side it went. and i am not supposed to acknowledge the bleeding? i’m gushing. gushing. i need 911 on speed dial, please please please someone, a doctor, a nurse, a good samaratin, please say, “i see it. it’s right there. i will take all this gauze and i will shove it into that big gross bloody wound that’s in the silhouette of tony. and i will try to help you stop hemmoraging.” 

my dad is this hole that remains mysteriously empty, like a cave. it’s so deep, so endless, i don’t have a voice, his voice, to fill it with an echo, i don’t have any senses to place inside of it. there are virtually no memories to keep there. it’s a shapeless hole, a cavernous, irregular hole. i saw him last year for the first time in a zillion, and he was a stranger, a grandpa, an elderly man, someone who maybe i could think of as a neighbor that i wanted to have dinner with, to check in on, to fill up my time and his. but he wasn’t mine, i was borrowing him for the evening from someone else, someone who maybe i’d call later and say, “hey, don’t worry, i checked in on him and we had dinner and he seems fine.” but he’s not mine. but at the same time, he’s my hole, my cave, my scar.

i am here, in southeast asia, knowing, from family lore and maybe some stories over a thanksgiving table, that he was here, working once, during war times, the very traumatic hard times for this part of the world. and i wonder, dad, strange man, creator one of my big, gaping, giant holes, were you here thinking about your holes? were you examining your life, your past, your future, while dodging tuk-tuks and cyclos and eating something you’d never seen before and you didn’t even know what it was and you were too afraid to ask, while smelling a mixture of blossoming frangipani and fresh shit?  did you sweep by a pagoda and stop and think, “i need to burn some incense, now, and ask for help to find the road out of my pain and illuminate my holes.” were you? were you sitting by the mekong, smoking a cigarette and for a moment, maybe you caught your reflection in the water or on a passing junk, were you asking yourself, “who am i? and how can i fill up the holes i’ve been left with? and that i have left them with?”

were you here? were you here in cambodia, here inside? ever?

dine says all the time, “stay cool, be warm.”

i love this.

i’ve decided to make tee shirts that say this–maybe even backwards so that when i look into the mirror, i can be reminded.

slow down. take a breath. a long one.

after all these years in new york, zooming, running, marathoning through the streets, navigating subway delays and escalators that don’t work–no problem, i will RUN up the 19 flights of stairs–, plowing through dinner from a paper deli bag in the back of filthy taxis to save time–and still saying “can you step on it?” to the guy driving–and checking blackberries while walking down the street, laying in bed, talking on the phone, even on the 6 train where the thing doesn’t even work, i am trying to figure out now, at 43 years old, how to breathe. i’ve been hoofing it, trailblazing, going at mach-10 (whatever “mach-10” means) for what seems like forever. how many times have i heard–or said myself–“i need it now!

breathe.

i find myself in the land of “okay, eliza, “–everyone calls me eliza, pronounced “ah-liz-ah”-“we will get it tomorrow.” and the new yorker in me thinks, “tomorrow? i needed that yesterday.”

and then i think about “be cool, stay warm”. and i breathe. i try to let the breath fill my whole body, and feel it go through every pore, every cell, every inch of myself. i try to remember that everything doesn’t have to happen now now now. it doesn’t have to be zapped and microwaved and rush-messengered. everything doesn’t need to be sent on a supersonic jet and hand-delivered-in-2-hours-or-less-or-your-money-back. i remember being astonished at the sight of a “mcdonalds express” on 6th avenue and thinking, “wait!? how much more ‘express’ can mcdonalds be? and does it need to be?”

i went to the bank with dine today, and he asked me to wait on the plastic chairs–those molded plastic chairs that seem to be in every country in the world…who is the zillionaire that invented these?–for him to do his business. he stood on line, made his way to the teller, one of the many, and received a number, a plastic coated number slip, like a tag, and came down and sat next to me, along with about 25 other people.

tick tock. tick tock. tick. tock.

impatiently, i said to dine, “what are you waiting for?” as i recalled chase bank offering “free snickers bar if you wait longer than 3 minutes!” (i am NOT kidding.) he said, “for them to call my number.” oh. of course.

tick tock. tick tock.

his number was called, he went back to the teller, she gave him something to fill out. and gave him another number. he went to the table, the ones with the pens on chains, while i looked around at the 24 other people still sitting in those everywhere-you-look plastic molded chairs. he then joined me, grasping his completed paperwork and his new plastic coated number.

tick tock. tick tock.

over the loudspeaker, an indistinguishable garble of “bongbramuybonbaba” filled the silence. (no, there’s no easy-listening tunes being piped in here, no free hot coffees, no banners of smiley faced multi-culti couples applying for mortgages in this place). dine stood up, went to the teller, and an exchange lasting all of 30 seconds happened and it was over. arkun, thank you, lee huey, goodbye.

it took about 30 minutes for that 30 second transaction.

and i thought about me in new york. me copping attitude and demanding my free snickers bar if my blackberry tells me that i’ve waited longer than the promised 3 minutes. shifting my weight, eye rolling, being annoyed and frantic and frazzled and letting it get under my skin, crawl there and fester. maybe i’m even holding my breath. 

i am learning how to breathe. how to let it escape and go in and out and untangle the mess, the big gigantic solid knot inside of me. allowing it to let me live in the moment, and try not to turn the page before i’ve finished the sentence. not hit the “fast forward” button, or skip over the commercials. just to let things go, let things happen, allow and encourage things to unfold as they will. no sighing, no “ahem”ing, no finger-snapping, no watch peeking, no foot tapping. letting go, or at least trying to figure out what that means. and how to make it a part of me.

be cool, stay warm.

when i was in elementary school, at king’s highway, the principal always held this yearly book sale. it was sort of like a tupperware party or girl scout cookie time–i recall there being a marketing push in the 70s called “RIF: Reading Is Fundamental”–and it was held in the auditorium (which was painted with a mural in the 1920s or 30s or something and it used to scare me. something about it was creepy. it was a scene from a theatrical performance and there were comedy+tragedy masks and pierrot clowns and other equally-scary-to-an-8-year-old kinds of images) and we would stand on the stage and rummage through the offerings and order books and excitedly get them a month or so later.

i loved this time. i loved to escape into books. i particularly liked these biographies for kids of famous people from history, and i remember developing a crush on john f. kennedy (and fantasizing about playing touch football with the whole clan in hyannisport) and liking the ones on helen keller (i then taught myself sign language from the encylopedia brittanica, the enormous set that every household had. like google in a binding) and louis pasteur (mmmm…chocolate milk. merci beaucoup, monsieur pasteur, i would think while reading the book for the 98th time). i subscribed to cricket magazine and would devour it, fall into the stories and be lost for hours amidst the pages of this tiny pre teen-vogue-sized periodical.

i’m still a voracious reader, and i love when someone turns me onto to something cool or someone i have never heard of (see my love letter/post to the author ha jin, phil and rick, under “books from brothers”). i have never joined a book club, because my books, my reading, my diving into this thing and getting inside of it, is just for me, and to talk about the plot and the protagonist and the antagonist and blah blah blah, seems to take the intimacy out of the experience.

i recall reading “sophie’s choice” straight through on a train from the costa del sol to barcelona, and never looking up once to see the coastline or the spanish villas or the palm trees swaying in the meditteranean breeze. or walking down avenue c with my nose fully placed inside of the spine of “crime and punishment” and finding myself suddenly on the fdr drive. oops. and being really confused but jazzed by the staccato rhythm of that oh-so-80s book, “bright lights, big city”–what is this? there’s, like, no punctuation or capital letters!?? and “you” are the protagonist? whoa. and jesus, joan didion’s recent tome on the death of her husband and daughter; i drank that book, i cut it into pieces and ate it. every word tasted amazing, incredible, sorrowful, expressive, new. and this book called “the story of a marriage” by this young guy named andrew sean greer (who i admittedly, shamelessly and pathetically will divulge that i have harbored fantasies for, that we are soul mates just waiting to meet) which got a rave review in the new york times–i think it said something like, “it’s hard not to gush” and i was floored, intrigued– i rushed, ran, hightailed it over to shakespeare & co on b’way and 8th street, bought it, and it killed me. it absolutely devastated me. how did this person, this kid, this writer somewhere, wherever the hell he lives, get so, well, smart? and intuitive? how?

and i always have a highlighter–which i used quite liberally in my copy of “the story of a marriage”– or my favorite sanford uniball micro pen in black handy for underlining sentences, feelings, emotions, sentence structures, punctuation, whatever. things and statements and just stuff that rocks my world. that i want to remember and cherish and absorb. 

i’m always amazed and struck and humbled by how many smart, fucking soooo oh-my-god-i-can’t-believe-this smart people there are in the world and how lucky i feel that i get to go inside of their brain and read their thoughts. 

my great friend leigh, who’s a brainiac on so many levels and in so many ways, is reading a jeanette winterson’s book called “written on the body”. i haven’t read it yet, but of course, it’s my quest to find a dog-eared copy of it somewhere in the many used bookstores here in town, that are chock-a-block filled with left behind treasures of the millions of tourists that pass through siem reap.

anyway, she sent me this quote from the book:

“‘You’ll get over it…’ It’s the cliches that cause the trouble. To lose someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it because ‘it’ is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never closes. How could it? The particularness of someone who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else can fit it. Why would I want them to?”

i read it, re-read it, thought, “what the hell is ‘anodyne’?” (turns out it is something to soothe your pain), wished i was smart and wise enough to use a word like “anodyne” in everyday conversation (“hey honey. can i be your anodyne today?”), considered penning a stalker email to ms winterson to thank her for putting my thoughts into such beautiful language, thought about calling amazon and seeing if they could drop a copy of this book off to me via parachute. i need words and thoughts and language like this. i crave it.

i am currently reading a book given to me by martin, my super-smart/gorgeous/dryly hilariously british pal, titled “the lizard cage” by karen connelly. and now i am devouring this like i do when cheeseburgers from stand are placed before me and sean. i read this sentence last night:

“it’s all right to cry. it’s just a little water that needs to get out. we could put it in a cup if you’re worried about losing it.”

and then, this:

“he cannot see the rain, but he hears it drumming, muttering, sighing, turning over and over, out of the sky to the earth back to the sky, washing away the layer of filth created by men, which encourages them to create more.”

oh. my. god.

july 17, 17 july, this date is significant. this date is about so many things, so many feelings, so many many many.

26 years ago today, today today today, july 17, 17 july, ann curtis kiester was killed. my twin sister. identical. me+her, ann+eliz, one word, one syllable, in unison, same DNA, same same same. two for one, a package deal. buy one, get one free. 

i am alive. 

she is not.

how can it be 26 years? how can it? how did this happen? how did i live a lifetime cut off from this, from her, from the one syllable, this human tandem bicycle? how did i keep walking with broken legs? my eyes were gone, too. everything was dark and demolished and damaged. torn.

that morning. that morning, oh my god, that morning in the dark, in the darkest hours after midnight, driving to the hospital, bobbing and weaving in the back seat of mom’s car, saying over and over again, “i did this, i caused this”. knowing full well, something inside TOLD me, said to me, clicked in me, that light switch went OFF–no dimmer here– i knew, i fucking knew that it was over, the life i knew for almost 18 years ended. in that moment. in the backseat of the car, rocking back and forth, saying “i did this.” it ended there on I-95, driving to bridgeport, ct. 

the last thing i said to her was “i don’t want to be your twin anymore”. 

we had a fight–siblings fight, right? don’t they?–and we parted with her jumping into katy’s car, our best friend for days and weeks and years and decades. they didn’t want me to come out with them that night. no no no no, you stay home, eliz. stay. you’re not invited.

but i want to be with you! hmm, okay, so i am not included. well then, don’t be my twin anymore, okay? go ahead, leave without me. leave me behind.

and they did.

i never saw either of them again.

gone gone gone. in the blackness of that summer night, everything caved in on itself, the universe turned itself around and upside down. the insides were now outside. the seams were showing and they were torn and ripped and needed tons and tons and rows and rows of stitches. spools and spools and yards and meters of thread to sew up, to repair. 

and the world, our friends, my colleagues, my ex-husband, family, the shrinks, perfect strangers, everyone said “go, eliz, go on and live. go forward.”

how do you live without lungs? how do you breathe? how how how? the universe ripped my insides out. i was hollow. a shell. i had no breath, no blood, no cells, no genetics, no DNA, nothing. empty, emptiness, emptier.

like a chocolate bunny at eastertime that you bite into and you’re disappointed it’s hollow, not solid, delicious, a more expensive yummy chunk of milk chocolate, i was that cheap dimestore last minute thought. it has an outside, that looks all tasty and delish and cool and adorable, and you bite into it, and it’s empty. just a shell. and you’re bummed.

that’s me.

people said and say, “move on”. my question has always been, “where am i moving to?” where do you go from here? where do you leave this “behind” and go on and live and forget? do you wrap it in a neat little package, maybe tied with a black satin bow? and then do you leave it in the woods? and run?  where is this place? how do all these people know of this “move on” island and i don’t? 

i don’t know where this island is. do you?

i can’t find it, so all this stuff goes where i go. a pain in my pit pit pit. it’s like a backpack that’s permanently on my back, forcing me, persuading me to navigate tight spaces, even big wide open huge spaces, a little bit differently. my shoulders hurt, my neck hurts, oh-my-god-my-lower-back-ouch-ouch-ouch, and it’s hard to squeeze into tiny spaces. i have this thing, this appendage. it’s there. it’s on my back. i carry it, i shoulder it. always.

this pain, it’s sort of like a compass, a navigational tool, a GPS. it tells me where to go, who to love, who not to trust, where to look. everything passes through this backpack before it goes any further. it needs to. it’s my filter. i ask it things. i turn to my backpack and say, “where am i going? what am i doing? where should i be?” and it tries to guide me. not too much, but it tries to show me the way, to some sort of path, some little road or lane or alleyway.

sometimes i don’t hear it. i fuck up and i go the wrong direction. oops. ouch. bleeding. band-aids. scars.

i get lost a lot. but i keep trying to find the way with a torch, a lighter, a match, a flashlight, a big, enormous, oversized magnifying glass–anything to help me illuminate it.

someone, please show me. i am willing to get cut, i am able to survive–i think. i will eat leaves and tarantulas and exist on diet coke or dirty water or marlboros, if i can just get there. get to that PLACE of safety and wholeness and to be filled up with that delicious swiss chocolate.

where is it? is it here?

i watched the sunrise today over the mekong river. i looked at the pinkness, the yellowness, the vibrancy, the shock of a new day dawning. i sat on the porch and asked, “where do i go, ann? where am i?”

and dine, who knows what day it is for me, took me to the shrine. it happens to be a buddhist holiday today, one where all the buddhist nuns come out to give praise to their deity. 

the shrine was swarming today with people burning incense, selling pink and white waterlillies, and those now familiar yellow candles. “$1! $1! only $1, lady!”

giving our shoes to an elderly nun, we stood in line in our sock covered feet to wait our turn to go inside this tiny little shrine here in phnom penh to ask buddha to bless ann, bless katy. and i wanted to ask him to light the way for me. please. i kinda begged.

we got on our knees after placing our flowers next to the altar, in an oversized golden urn, teeming with beauty and life and the strength and the powerful colors of nature. i watched out of the corner of my eye as dine mouthed the words of a buddhist prayer, and touched the incense to his forehead and bowed low low low til his forehead touched the ground. and i looked at this big golden statue, covered with  wreaths and leis and shrouded by the fragrant smoke, and i said, “please please please. thank you thank you thank you. i promise promise promise.”

low beats and the ting-ting-ting of some sort of xylophone passed through the open air shrine. people were playing native instruments nearby, asking the spirits to come and see all of us, visit us.

big fat droplets of saltwater trickled out of my eyes, wet my face and things were blurry but i watched the people and smelled the flowers and the incense and the garbage nearby and heard the cries of the vendors selling their wares on the sidewalks and the caws and calls of birds being released into the sky. i heard the tuk-tuks and their familiar clackety clack, and saw naked children swimming in the brown and muddy mekong. and the wrinkled, almond colored faces of the elders who have seen the worst and found the road out. we all shared this moment of pain, of suffering, of living, of living THROUGH, of survival, of emptiness, of the search. maybe even the fulfillment of the search and the lessons. and we were all there together, saying “i promise and i thank you and i need you and i want your illumination and i have gratitude for giving me this pain so i understand what it means to feel joy.”

i will find the road, i will, i am determined to see it, because she will light it for me. maybe she already is.

i looked out the window later and there was a rainbow in the sky. and tonight, i saw a shooting star.

ann curtis kiester. march 13, 1965-july 17, 1982.

i love asking “why?”. i love it, because i want to understand everything that seems to make no sense to me, and solve mysteries nancy-drew style to get to the bottom of why people do what they do, why they wear what they wear, why why why. 

there’s always a reason.

annoyingly, every once in a while, when i was overcome by the enormity and somewhat ridiculousness of fashion, fashion with a capital F, fashion that people like rachel-zoe-whoever-those-drones-are push on whatever celebrity-of-the-moment-isn’t-in-rehab, i would always think, “WHY? this stuff is just supposed to protect us from the elements. nothing more.” and indeed, the moment would pass, there was no answer to the question, and i would be back in my closet putting together some sort of ensemble to make me feel okay through the day.

anyway, it’s like when i was in wyoming and i found out why cowboys–real cowboys, not posers–prefer wrangler jeans (it has something to do with the inseam seam not chafing when you’re straddling a horse) or why brits drive on the left-hand side of the road (knights were right handed, so they went to battle facing their opponents on the left) or why in colonial america guys wore 3 pointed hats (thanks to tina, i found out they pinned their hats that way at sea to keep them from flying off in the ocean winds).

just cool answers to maybe inane questions, but cool nevertheless.

so since i’ve been in cambodia, i’ve been thinking about why people eat bugs and spiders and crickets and beehives and equally unusual things like dogs, brains and animal innards. 

and while reading this amazing, enlightening book that my brilliant friend danny gave me before i left, called “first they killed my father”, a first-person account of a child growing up during the khmer rouge regime, it dawned on me.

people here were starving. 

duh! okay, not a huge lightbulb went off over my head, not a bulb the size of the ones in shibuya lighting up the millions of billboards. but something inside of me clicked “on”, and it suddenly made me think about the cowboys and john adams and his weird hat and trying to figure out how to work a stickshift with my left hand. it all made sense now.

for over a decade, this country was forced into labor camps to grow rice in exchange for arms and weapons and machine guns and horrible killing machines from the chinese and the russians. they were given a ration of one cup of rice per day. on good days.

so they found other ways to survive. eating leaves, insects, shit, wood pulp, stray dogs, a kernel of rotten corn, sometimes even human flesh, it’s rumored. because they had a will to make it, to live through this hell on earth, to see their families and homes again, and ate what they could. what was there.

nearly half the population of cambodia died of starvation, malnutrition, and vile diseases as a result of this terrible time in cambodian history.

but those who made it came away from the nightmare determined, focused, brave, strong, willing and able to see their futures brighter and sunnier. at least for their kids, or their kids’ kids.

and they keep eating bugs and brains and livers and stomachs and dog meat and living off the land, the stuff that buddha or god or santa claus or whomever it is put on this earth for the taking for sustenance. 

so today i ate more bee hives. and they tasted really yummy, really sweet and really cambodian.

i tasted survival and it tasted really good.

there’s a cute cafe near my hotel, one that i visited daily for lunch and dinner when i was here before on my volunteer program. dine is friends with the owner, a young, 25 year old, very smiley fresh faced guy, who lives in the back of the restaurant with his pregnant wife, his 1 year old daughter, his mom and his grandma and various cousins and other extraneous family members. 

it’s called the honolulu cafe, and while i never understood what that name had to do with the cuisine or the environment (as there is no pineapple drenched short ribs served, no tiki torches, no leis), the food is yummy and the vibe is nice, and there’s a big futon couch out front that i have spent ample amounts of time lazing on, smoking cigarettes and drinking “coca light”.

i’ve come to call the owner mr. honolulu, instead of his real name, which is a sound my mouth can’t quite make, and out of frustration and sheer embarrassment, mr. honolulu it is. he likes it and it makes him smile his big, wide, bright smile.

i spent a few hours with him yesterday. his english is immaculate, his pronounciation near perfect, and he spilled some stories of his life, his journey, and i sat there dumbfounded, speechless, touching his hand, as his words enveloped me.

he grew up in an orphanage, with his mother. living on the floor, scrounging for food. digging in the forest for a yam, a piece of fruit, something. his father and most of his family were killed by the khmer rouge regime, or lost in all the madness, and he and his mother fled for safety in what appeared to be better than living on the streets. 

he was “adopted” by a french woman, a woman i believe probably filled out one of those forms in a magazine that ask you to “adopt a child for as little as $10 a month, the price of 2 grande coffees at starbucks”. she supported him monthly, sending her $10 so that his mother and he could buy some rice, maybe a shirt or two, and he could go to school. 

he said to me, “$10 is a lot of money.” and i shook my head, yes yes yes, indeed it is.

she dilligently sent her money, for over 10 years. she wrote letters, he wrote back, and he promised her he would study and get an education. 

mr honolulu kept his promise to mademoiselle french lady, and he ended up going to university. 

he paid his tuition by taking many jobs, one at a fancy-pants hotel here, so he could practice his english and see the world through the eyes of the tourists, and understand and connect to a life outside of a mat on the floor in an orphanage.

mme french lady was coming to town, and she wanted to meet him. they had been pen pals for over 10 years, and she wanted to see her “son”, embrace him, celebrate all his accomplishments. so she came. she flew thousands of miles to see his face, to see his smile.

he learned french so they could talk face-to-face.

she stayed in the fancy-pants hotel and threw a party for him and his whole family, the ones that were left. he and his new wife stayed at the hotel for the night, in a plush deluxe room where they oohed and aahed over running water and a bed that wasn’t made of straw. 

he showed me pictures of the party, of the room, of their magical eyes staring at the flat-screen tv and the king sized bed. and he clung to a tissue and wiped his eyes. so did i.

then he met a lady at the hotel, a wealthy american woman, who travels constantly in pursuit of knowledge. she took a liking to mr. honolulu; she found him to be hard working and earnest and sincere, and she, too, wanted to help him achieve his goals, meet his dreams. she saw in him what mme french lady did, and she said “i want to help you, too.”

she’s from hawaii.

hence, the “honolulu cafe”.

this was his dream, to have a place of his own, and ms. hawaii helped him and encouraged him and cheerleaded him. he learned about food at the fancy-pants hotel, learned hospitality there, learned everything he could so he could open the honolulu cafe. for her. for mme french lady. for himself, for his wife, for his daughter, his long-suffering mom. to say “i can do something” after all that he had lived through. 

ms hawaii comes twice a year and helps him with his business, shows him the way, leads him onto paths he didn’t know were there. 

he said, “eliz, i want you to meet her when she comes back.” and i said yes yes yes, indeed, i want to meet ms. hawaii too.

i thought about mr honolulu’s plight. i thought about him sleeping on a dirty floor, huddled with his mom, hearing gunfire and watching people get injured and maimed. i realized that at this time, i was brooding over ayn rand’s “the fountainhead”, listening to the smiths, chain smoking merits and trying to figure out what i was meant to do in this world. 

and so was mr. honolulu in a very, very different way. 

and maybe we both found it. maybe we’re both on the roads that we were meant to be on, and we’ve come together to celebrate our very windy, loopy paths that somehow came together in this tiny, dusty, beautiful place called siem reap.

we wiped away each others tears, we hugged and i started to pedal away. but i turned back and said, “mr honolulu! you’ve had a very lucky and blessed life!” and he put his hands together in buddhist prayer and shouted, “yes, i have!”

i collect things, like cool japanese trash bags with flowers all over them (i haven’t used them because i hate to!), art books, face creams (you should see my medicine cabinet. all in pursuit of not looking my age, but i admittedly never use any of them), drinking straws (the only thing in my kitchen cabinet), and weird/funny/cool trinkets collected from my various journeys.

and now i am collecting tattoos.

dine and i took a tuk-tuk out to the floating village yesterday, about 20kms from town. bumping along the dirt roads, we drank a few tiger beers to celebrate what we were doing–going to deliver clothes, generously donated by my gorgeousness of a niece and nephew–to the kids out there who live on boats, have not much of anything and rarely get a chance to see and experience life outside of the lake. 

the town floats. yes, it’s sort of like the southeast asian version of venice, minus the piazzas and the spaghetti bolognese and the pigeons and the gondoliers in their straw hats and black vests. the whole town is on individual boats, wooden houses on a schooner, flat bottom boats holding a school, a prison (!!), a basketball court (you need exercise other than swimming, right?), municipal “buildings”, etc. you drive/steer your boat to the shops to buy your food, your wares, your daily needs. it’s incredible, and quite spectacular, and says to me that people will make their worlds work where they want them, even if it’s on a lake in the middle of cambodia.

so we pulled up to the schoolhouse, climbed up onto the boat and distributed adidas tee shirts and abercrombie jeans and basketball jerseys and topshop cotton dresses and other things lizzie and charlie didn’t need or wear anymore, and presented these coveted items to kids who were ecstatic. the school teacher was dumbfounded by these 2 people–a khmer dude and his blue eyed western counterpart– who were weren’t dressed like santa claus but acted like him. the teacher even took a pair of charlie’s old mesh gym shorts–the big oversized kind that the pro basketball players wear–and put them on over his pants. we laughed and laughed and hugged.

on the vroom vroom vroom ride back into town, the sun was setting over the verdant rice paddies, all lush and tropical, and lotus flowers brought their pink magic into an otherwise all green landscape. purple tinted clouds dotted the horizon and the light, that magical-oh-my-god-this-is-heaven-on-earth-just-around-6-pm-light illuminated everything, bounced off dine’s eyelashes, highlighted my cheekbones, and cast a brilliant shadow of the two of us in this cute little regal tuk-tuk onto the side of the road. 

we passed a restaurant/tattoo shop and dine said “let’s go!” and i loved him for his spontaneity, living in this moment of heavenly fun, so the tuk tuk pulled over and inside we went, talked to the artist and crawled into this little room off the restaurant.

one big mat covered the floor, and a tv set playing a chinese movie dubbed in khmer cackled it’s inexplicable language into my ears. a child, the artists child, was napping in the corner and came alive when he saw this white woman sitting on the floor, watching his dad sketch out a buddhist symbol that dine and i designed together that in a few short hours would adorn each of us, forever.

a newcomer to tattoos, and the pain accompanying them, dine went first, and i held his hands and tried to make him think of something other than the zapping and pricking and the ouchiness of the needles invading his smooth back. sweating and grumbling and probably saying “oh my fucking god” in khmer, i know he was surprised by what it takes to have this artwork permanently attached to your body. and ultimately, your self.

he made it, and i told him that 10 minutes later he would forget the pain and want to do it again. isn’t that what women say about having babies?

my turn. onto my stomach i went, and the artist went to work on my back, etching this beautiful work that dine and i selected together to adhere ourselves to each other, and to the store we are opening together. it says “wanderlust” and has traditional circles and spirals around it, symbolizing the earth and the universe and the foreverness of buddhism. it’s gorgeous. we did it in red. my favorite.

i like permanence. 

i want to collect “forever”s.

a wordsmith i am not. a visual person, i am. which came in handy today.

i was invited by dine to attend a ceremony honoring his wife’s grandma’s death 3 years ago. the ceremony was to celebrate the moving of her ashes from her home in the countryside to a sort of family masoleum at the local pagoda. i was flattered to be included, of course, and jumped at the opportunity to experience cambodian customs that normally a tourist (yuck) would never get a chance to live through. 

empathy.

we drove about 20 miles outside of siem reap to a house belonging to one of the zillions of relatives he seems to have, that everyone in cambodia seems to have– i am starting to think everyone here is related somehow–amidst the rice paddies and fruit trees–limes, starfruit, melons, pomegranates, bananas, oh my god a plethora of goodness– and a smattering of cattle, who stood grazing the tall grasses but otherwise were motionless. 

we walked into the yard to a whirlwind of madness and activity and energy and zoom zoom zoom-iness, as there were people everywhere, doing something, creating something, examining something, fixing something, just doing.

10 buddhist nuns sat sitting on straw mats, underneath a colorful tent, rolling coconut rice into sticky balls to squish between a palm frond and wrap like a gift; 2 mens were sitting on their haunches, sharing a double ended saw, cutting firewood; a man in a checked sarong was stirring a big black cauldron of some sweet and spicy soup over an open flame and stoking the fire simultaneously; women sat gossiping on chairs, or perched on top of tree stumps, peeling potatoes, chopping lemongrass, skinning chickens, and throwing their work into huge stainless steel bowls;  a lady was washing plates and spoons at the waterpump, where toothpaste sat on a low cement wall and plastic pails will provide her a shower, later; children were squealing and running about, some half dressed, and newborn chickens and roosters clucked under their bare feet; an aimless calf walked through the madness, looking for his mama, his cowbell ring ring ringing; a lady was swinging in a hammock, rocking her baby to sleep; elders were on the balcony, preparing offerings for the monks; scooters came in and out, dropping off water, ice, cokes and more more more more more. 

and i stood there, frozen, sweating profusely but frozen, absorbing all this chaos and insanity and beauty and, well, life.

a small ceremony was performed at the pagoda, and i was included, although only 12 attended. 6 monks came out of their house and sat in front of the masoleum, to which a white string was tied and the “head” monk held the spool, and it symbolized the connection between the two. we sat in front of them and they chanted in unison, all hands were clasped in the buddhist prayer, and red ants were biting my legs but it didn’t matter.

back to the house we all went, the monks in tow, and upon arriving, we all filed into the house–the 2nd floor, remember, it’s a one room house on stilts–and the room was emptied of its everyday belongings. what was left in the room was a picture of grandma, placed in front of the urn of ashes, and an altar, a glorious splendor of color. bright cellophane flags were stuck into bowls of ripened fruit and handmade boats from fronds; yellow incense burned and perfumed the hot air, and i swear the smoke was pink; yellow tapers burned in front of a poster of buddha, brightly painted in primary colors and neon shades of pink and magenta. we folded ourselves onto the floor, seated on straw mats, and the monks sat facing us in their glorious saffron robes. two windows framed their shaved heads, windows without glass, shutters opened to let the light in and the breeze.

the chanting began, and the “head” monk pulled from his robe a black chinese fan, painted with flowers in sky blue, and continued to chant behind the shroud of the accordian pleats that covered his face. 

dine told me that the black fan symbolizes death, and he covered his face as he was speaking directly to the spirit, not to us.

it was extraordinary. 

for some weird reason, i thought about madame butterfly.

i sat there in silence, mimicking the movements and the motions of the nuns–oh, i have to put my head down now, oops, my prayer hands need to touch my forehead–and i was overwhelmed by the enormity of this experience, and how if i was grandma i would be looking down feeling quite pleased that my life was being celebrated in such a beautiful, meaningful, powerful, sensory way. big fat hot tears streamed down my already-damp-from-sweat face and i closed my eyes and said thank you to grandma for bringing me into her life, even at her death.

this was about living.