Tag Archives: Identity

Snapshot of Innocence

Who is that kid?  No it’s not another picture of my daughter.  It’s another child I care for quite deeply, actually.  I’ll give you a hint.  It was taken in 1970.

Yes, it’s me.  Looking pretty pleased with myself, my life and the mess I’ve made of my milk and strawberry ice cream.  My best friend Claire still lived on the ninth floor of my apartment building, I still went to the Manhattan Country School.  My favorite toy was a big, green and white corrugated cardboard puppet stage and I still believed I was going to get a dog and a baby sister one day, somehow.  I didn’t hate my hair.  I didn’t think I was fat.

The reason I love this picture is that I can see in my eyes all of the above.  I can see how safe I felt, how trusting and truly innocent I was.  When I look at that picture, I see the good, sweet, silly little girl I was and it makes me want to be good—to her and for her.

I know the expression “inner-child” has been used ad nauseam, fodder for cheap sit-com laughs for more than thirty years, but there’s something about remembering who we were as children, and how we were back then—that goes a long way toward banishing negativity in our present lives.

If you can, go and get a picture of yourself when you were little, say four or five.  Still the age of magical thinking, but old enough to have the language to order your thoughts, and an idea of what was going on around you.  Look at the picture for a minute.  A whole minute and see what you’re feeling.  Imagine that the child can see you and your life.  What conversation might you have?  I know what you wouldn’t say.  You wouldn’t tell the child she’s stupid or worthless or an idiot or a fat pig or ugly or incompetent.  You’d never tell her: “I can’t believe you screwed that up!”  “What’s wrong with you?” or anything so harsh.

I hope you don’t talk to your big-adult self that way either.  But sadly, a lot of people do.  Not all the time, but sometimes and sometimes is enough to count as beating yourself up.  Now think back to the last time you put yourself down, called yourself dumb or fat or anything intended to hurt yourself.  Imagine what you’d do if you saw someone treating the child in the photograph that way.  You’d probably defend the kid.  You’d stand up to the bully on the child’s behalf.  And finally you’d try to rectify the situation by building the child up, telling her something positive and hopeful.  You’d work at it until you saw her smile again.

Why?  Because children are all potential, all hope, all beautiful dreams.  No matter what their circumstances, they are blameless and deserving of the chance to be and do anything.  As adults, we have to recognize life’s and our own limitations.  We set more realistic goals, but strive, hopefully, to be the best we can at what suits us.  Sometimes there are false starts, unfortunate career choices, misguided relationships.  From every experience, good and bad, you learn and use that knowledge the next time you’ve got a choice to make.

I love that everyone is writing letters to past versions of themselves these days.  I think it’s such a wonderful mix of reflection and self acceptance.  Oprah had a whole section of her May 2012 issue devoted to  letters written by celebrities to their younger selves (hers is first).  And there’s the upcoming Dear Teen Me, to be released in October, edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, an anthology of YA authors’ letters to teens they once were.

All these letters are full of advice and reassurance: It’ll get better, don’t eat so much sugar, don’t smoke, have more fun.  The idea is to look back tenderly at your old self, nurture Kid You with the perspective Grown-up You has gained over the years.  Since we’re generally nicer and more patient with children than we are with adults, this might be a step toward showing yourself love.

When I’ve done trauma work—with teens and young adults who were victimized as children— there is a visualization exercise we do.  The following is a generic, sketch-description (and note that this kind of exercise is never done too soon in the therapy, never too early in a support group).

Close your eyes and imagine yourself a small child again, at the time when [the abuse] took place.  Remember yourself, your room.  Tell me some of the details, what toys are around? What’s on the walls?  Where are you in the room?  Remember the place where [the abuse] happened.  Tell me what is happening.  Now, I want you to choose someone from any time period in your life—even the present—an adult who is strong and loyal and can protect and defend you.  Now bring that person back with you.  Let that person protect you and stop [the abuse/abuser]. (Can you tell me what’s happening?  How the protecting adult stops [the trauma]? 

Now, Can you tell me who it is that saves you?

More than once, when I did this exercise, either with an individual or with a group, the answer to the last question was:

MYSELF.  That’s who saves me.  Myself as an adult, how I am now.”

There is something very powerful in the notion of you—the grownup—saving your past self.  Only you can be that loyal to you.

You are not that child anymore.  You are not reliant on other adults to guide you, nurture you and cheer you on.  (Maybe you’re parenting kids of your own, caring for your own parents at the same time.)  But that child is still part of your identity.  You carry her with you always.  Remember her: the hope she had, the small joys and big dreams, no matter how much they’ve changed over the years.  You can honor her by being true to your current goals, your current dreams, by believing in yourself.

So have standards for yourself, for your work, for your parenting and treatment of others and care for the environment.  But don’t make those standards impossibly high, and don’t chastise yourself on those days when you fall a little bit short.  Instead, look at the picture, look into the child’s eyes and believe you deserve the same love she did.

The Story of Your Identity

Mom, Writer, Therapist, Wife, Self …

My blog has shifted a little in the nine months since it began.  I’m writing more and more about parenting, less lately about body image.  My Mom-identity—as multifaceted as that is—is really dominant lately.  I’m restarting my therapy practice, so I’ll be home less—which, ironically, is why motherhood is so much on my writing-mind right now.  I’m aware of the upcoming changes, preparing to miss being home as much as I am now, yet exhilarated by the idea of all the adventures my kids will have to share with me when we’re together.   In any case, my mom-self has been driving this blog lately.  So today I thought I’d go back to basics—and do a post about identity itself.

The subject of identity is so broad; so much has been written on it.  There’s gender identity, racial and religious identity, national identity.   Your identity comes, not just from the place you live in, but also from your place in the family.   Were you the parentified first-born?   Were you the “troubled middle child?” Were you the baby?

Think about your roles too.  How different you are with your colleagues, with your friends, your spouse, your children.  Do you surprise yourself by regressing every time you visit your parents’ home?   Or maybe you manage an office full of employees, yet have to stand on your head while singing Old MacDonald just to get your toddler to try a single mouthful of peas.

Children have different identities too.  Think of the little girl who’s quiet and shy at school, but a wild, silly cut-up at home?  She’s cautious in the school environment where “good” behavior is stressed, then lets loose where she knows she’s safest.  (Both sides to her are normal and healthy.  You only worry when she seems anxious and withdrawn in the place where she’s usually at ease.)  It’s good to be flexible, adapting the different sides of you to the situation at hand.

In addition to being a mother, I am a daughter, a wife, a writer.  I am a therapist, a friend, a former dancer.   I’m the old friend who makes you laugh. I’m a city kid, an only child, a Biracial Jew, and a member of two different PTAs.  My identity is made of all these pieces and more.

Heidi W. Durrow, the author of Bellwether Prize winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a favorite biracial author (right up there with Zadie Smith) describes her identity in an NPR interview as “a story.”  She is talking about her parents’ backgrounds, how they met, how she grew up–how all that added up to who she is today.   I love this description.  I believe we are all stories.

When I was doing my post-grad work at the Ackerman Institute, we studied Gregory Bateson and the Milan Group and learned about “Circular Questioning,”  also the work of David Epston and Michael White on Narrative Therapy or Re-storying.  We’d encourage families to tell the stories of their problems, asking for different perspectives from the different members present.  Sometimes a client would have difficulty breaking out of a destructive behavioral pattern and we’d find this linked to an inner personal narrative.

“I’m the lazy one in the family,” or “I’ve always been the trouble maker.”

We’d ask, “Who in the family might have a different description of you?”  “Who might tell another story?”

A pause, some thought.  “Well Grandpa always said I was a late bloomer, a diamond in the rough.”

The idea was that thinking about yourself in a new way stretches your identity and opens up new doors.

Sometimes you get to tell the story of your identity; sometimes it comes from others you know.  Sometimes it’s something pinned on you that you take issue with.  For example, when one sister is called “the beauty” and the other is called “the brains.”   No matter how unfair or limiting those designations might be, they are still part of each sister’s identity–if only as something she’ll want to break free from one day.

Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of.  For example, if you’re the only woman in a room full of men, if you’re the only grown-up in a mini-van full of rowdy tweens, the thing that sets you apart is the identity you’re most connected to.

Which parts of you come into play the most?  Which piece of your identity is dominant right now?

Blog Vs. Book

One of the things I like best about blogging is the other bloggers I’ve met this way.   Wonderful writers, women and men, who live all over the globe, some of whom share my day-to-day routines of parenting, writing, house-maintenence (or house-neglect which is more apt these days), others whose schedules do not revolve around carpools, pick-ups and drop-offs.  I look forward to reading the blogs of the people I follow, many of whom follow me.  Through my followees (and followers) I am exposed to lives I’d never have discovered on my own.

There’s responsibility in blogging, though.  Your blog is more than an expression of yourself and your take on the world.  As it gains an audience, your blog becomes a thing of its own.  When I am asleep, someone on the other side of the planet might be reading, sharing, commenting on my blog.  When I check it again, it’s got new growth.   Like a garden, you have to care for your blog, feed it, nurture it, recognize when it’s stagnating and then do something about that.

When the bloggers I follow are silent for a while, I might miss them, but I won’t judge them.   I know we all have to live our lives and that often the blog is the piece we can leave unattended while we’re caring for a sick relative, working, hosting the in-laws or, what was that other one?–writing a novel.   For me it’s that last one I’m having trouble balancing with the blog, though it seems like everyone else online manages to do it.

(Yes I know, everyone chooses what they reveal of themselves online; some let it all hang out, others show only their most glowing selves.  Recently I read a great article about social-network envy–the perception that everyone on the internet is accomplishing more than you and having more fun doing it!)  I am sure everyone struggles balancing blog and life, or in my case, blog and book, but I find myself occasionally overwhelmed with guilt for choosing one over the other.  Not that I believe there’s a galaxy of fans who would be devastated if I took a hiatus to power through my novel.

The most regular of my followers and commenters happen to be kind and supportive and understanding (and yes, I feel like I know you and wish I could have coffee with you sometime!).   But I’m not worried about letting other people down.  Instead, I’m concerned about missing out, which I know is a piece of my character that stems directly from being an only child.  What was the sibling world doing while I was home with my parents?   With all their brothers and sisters around, would they forget about me?

If I took a month off from my blog, what would happen?  If I abandoned Twitter?  Would I have to start from scratch?  Would people remember me and still be my friends–I mean followers?  I don’t know, but I have decided not to find out, not yet.   I will slow down here, though.  I’ve actually slowed down already.   I’m giving myself until June to finish a draft of the new WIP, and will post here only about once a week for now.  (Don’t worry: I’ll still read your blogs because they are often so wonderful and mentally sustaining.)

But, as much as I don’t like to blog about blogging or write about writing, I’m going to temporarily let go of that to make this blog a better partner for my fiction.  Actually, that shouldn’t be hard, because my new WIP is all about body image and identity, which is the tagline for this blog.

I’m almost done for tonight, but first I’m going to share something about my WIP’s protagonists and why I think their struggles are relevant here.  They’re seventeen year old twins, both pre-professional ballet dancers, one male and one female.  Here I’ll just call them GT for girl twin and BT for boy twin.  Here are their conflicts:

  • BT is bullied by his homophobic father who suspects (correctly) that BT is gay.  BT’s father makes BT promise to give up dancing, but BT continues behind his back.
  • GT is bullied by the directors of their pre-professional ballet company because of her weight.  GT is a normal, healthy weight for a seventeen year old girl and the powers-that-be find this unacceptable.

I’m not going to share plot details because, though I’ve written over seventy pages, I haven’t yet finished the outline.  But these twins will face major obstacles to their dream of succeeding in ballet–all directly or indirectly related to the themes of body image and identity.  (See?  There’s my blog tie in.)

Anyway I hope to finish a draft, possibly a second draft, by the end of the school year, when I will lose a good chunk of writing time (as my angelic children will be home).  Please root for me!  Thanks!

Stay tuned …

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.

Writing is Identity

With so many great blogs out there about books and writing, why blog about books and writing?  Especially since my blog is supposed to be about body image and identity.  Well, writing is identity.

I’ll confess, ever since I got back from the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC last weekend, I’ve been struggling to come up with a decent post.  A (minor) shoulder injury has put off my next installment of “To Dance Again;” my kids haven’t done anything special to inspire a new mixed-race-parenting piece—nor have I had any ah-hah moments about my own biracial, Jewish, black, ex-dancer-shrink-ness.

Frankly, though I’ve been proof-reading, not really writing, I’ve thinking of nothing but my writing, which is itself an identity topic.  My writing is made up of all the pieces that make me myself.  (I think most writers would agree.)

I am in full writer mode this week.  My kids get it: they scrounge for their own snack and start their own homework, work out their own little squabbles, knowing that somewhere upstairs in the fire-hazard, dust-bunny haven of the study, is Mommy-as-Writer-Lady (they know I’ll be down to cook and feed and hang out later).

I haven’t posted here for a whole week; I’ve been too busy giving my novel one last comb through before sending requested pages to agents I met at the conference.  (Still insanely giddy over the fact that they were interested enough to ask!)   And now that I’m finally posting, what do I post about?  Writing!

Here’s why I write: Certain aspects of being human either vex, amuse or fascinate me.  I need to get them down in my own quirky way, ultimately to see whether or not others feel as I do.  In The Marriage Plot (which I haven’t finished yet), Jeffrey Eugenides’s Madeleine finds in Barthes “the reason she read books in the first place … a sign that she wasn’t alone.”  In Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (which I will post more about at another time), when Rachel says, “…the other black girls in school think I want to be white … I don’t want to be white … I want to be nothing,”  I think, yes, it’s something I’ve felt before.

So maybe you’re not biracial, black or Jewish, maybe you’ve never obsessed about whether your thighs touch when you stand with your feet together, maybe you’re not an only child or even female.  But when you read me you just might see a small part of yourself reflected back.

Now, let me take this opportunity to say what a thrilling, magical weekend I had at the Writer’s Digest Conference (#WDC12 in Twitter-speak).   I met so many fascinating people: other aspiring authors, some successful ones, editors, agents and others in this great, old, but rapidly changing field of publishing.  Though everyone says, “go to conferences with an open mind, ready to learn everything you can,” I’ll admit I went mostly to pitch Birch Wood Doll.  Once I got there, though, I inhaled information, from “Writing about Yourself in the Digital Age,” with A.J. Jacobs , to “Conflict and Suspense” with James Scott Bell, to a fantastic kid-lit seminar with Mary Kole , which convinced me to make my next project a YA venture.  Of course the Pitch Slam—60 agents, 400+ unpublished authors, 3 hours—was the high point.  I was fortunate enough to walk away with business cards from five of the agents on my top-six list.  I got home and immediately read through BWD again for typos and awkward phrasing, sent everything out on Tuesday and found myself coming down with a cold and an utter loss for words.

Fortunately, I had signed up for a Pitchapalooza workshop at Watchung Booksellers  last night.  I decided not to pitch Birch Wood Doll, since my pitch had been successful at the WDC.  Instead I challenged myself to formulate a pitch for the (as yet unwritten) YA book, just to see if “The Book Doctors” would think it sounded worthwhile.  The good news is that they did.  And with that project to look forward to (yet another novel heavily featuring body image and identity) my blogging voice seems to have returned.

Lastly, to the wonderful fellow writers I met last weekend—Grace, Joanna, AG, KSZ, Harry and others—I am rooting for you all!

Homecoming! Didn’t Quite Make It But …

They’re ba-ack!  Jon and the kids got home at seven o’clock last night, bringing down the curtain on what were, for me, an amazingly productive three days.  That said, I will certainly not make my finish-the-draft-by-midnight on 12/3/2011 goal, though having my eyes on that prize kept me much more focused than I would have been otherwise.

What I did accomplish was:

  • Writing over forty pages—some of which I believe is imminently usable.
  • Restructuring my outline.  The original one had grown a little stale and outdated now that I was actually realizing the characters.  The new one is pretty clear-cut and, I believe, doable.
  • Giving voice to a character who was previously mute and therefore carried around a blackberry so he could communicate by texting people around him.  Boy that wasn’t working, though I hadn’t had time to figure it out.  Little details like that can really clog up the works.  (Why was he mute in the first place?  Because of a trauma I’d eliminated from the story a few months back!)  So, nixed the mutism, nixed the Blackberry.
  • Pared down the number of alter-egos the protagonist had.  Dissociative Identity Disorder is complicated; people can have more than thirty alters.  But asking fiction readers to keep track of more than three is pushing it.
  •  Identified the need for a true psychiatric consultant who specializes in DID.  Not just schmoozing with my psychiatrist friends over coffee here and there.
  • Also, though this was not on my agenda, changed the theme of this blog, since for some reason “PILCROW” had stopped showing my tagline: Writings on Body Image and Identity.   This new theme is “CORALINE.”  The header photo, by the way, is from my daughter’s dance class when she was about five. (2006ish.)

So, all in all, a hugely productive few days.  And the best part of all was seeing my family again and realizing how much I’d missed them.  Those hugs when they came through the door, my daughter’s whispered, “I really missed you … like a lot,” were worth more than ten finished drafts!

Thoughts for the 5th Hanukah Candle and Christmas Eve

Happy Hanukah and Merry Christmas Eve for all those in multi-culti families and marriages, to all those who grew up in families with a mish-mash of holidays and to all those who are just interested in what other people in other cultures do.    (I’ll get to Kwanzaa on Monday, don’t worry.)

In my family of origin, we lit the menorah for Hanukah, ate latkes, sang dreidel, but didn’t exchange gifts.  Instead we—or I should say I, because I was and am an only child—got those little envelopes with pockets for coins, actual gelt.  My mother (my Jewish parent) was always critical of what people now refer to as the Christmasization of Hanukah.  To her and to me Hanukah is more about the celebration of miracles and survival, freedom and, yes, pluralism.  Also, we celebrated Christmas, not as a religious tradition, but as a celebration of family and togetherness and okay, presents.  There was a tree, a real one with needles and a good pine-y smell; there were three boxes of lights that got so badly tangled in their storage box it took my dad three hours, a stiff drink, a cigarette and a whole lot of unholy language to straighten them out.  There were special decorations that reappeared each year, greeting me from their tissue paper wrappings like old friends.  And there were presents.  Oy, were there presents.  (I said I was an only child.)

There was also a huge dinner and company.  Mostly Jewish company, because that’s what the oldest dearest friends who lived in New York happened to be.  (The same people who showed up for our latke parties often made a second appearance on December 25th.)  The center piece of the evening was the wonderfully diverse music my father played on the phonograph.  Everything from Bach and Handel to Klezmer, to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.  Even the scores from Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler on the Roof.   Really.  And for me, all of it went together because that was just our home and family.

The year my father died, the eighth candle fell on Christmas Day.    He had died in February at the age of seventy one and we were still too raw to imagine a Christmas without him.   My mother and I decided there would be no tree that year; what we’d do instead was have a big, lavish Latke party and invite everyone we could, light the candles, make lots of food, play all Dad’s music, but not call it Christmas.  It was the best possible way to spend the day.

In my current family—meaning my husband (who is also Jewish, though secular) my two children and myself—we did not celebrate Christmas until my daughter was three and a half and my son was just walking. I thought I’d put Christmas to rest with my father and for my husband—frankly not celebrating Christmas was a big part of his Jewish identity.

It was the children—and memories of sharing Christmas with my father that changed my mind.  Yes, Christmas is everywhere this time of year.  For all my friends raising Jewish children, it can be hard explaining why their families abstain from this huge part of American Culture.  (I don’t say Christian culture; it is Christian, it is all Christian, but that’s not what our commercial society leads with.  Whose image is more pervasive this time of year: Jesus or Santa?)  But I didn’t succumb to pressure from my kids or anyone else.  I chose to bring Christmas back into my life because I missed it; I missed my old family traditions.  And because I was ready.   My husband wasn’t hard to persuade, though he did resist at first.  There’s nothing Christian about our Christmas, as there wasn’t when I was growing up.  We have an artificial tree from Home Depot (with built in lights!) and we make Hanukah as important and special.  Their Jewish identity is intact; when it’s time to make family holiday cards at school, they each come home with Hanukah cards—their own decisions.  We give book gifts for each candle of Hanukah and exchange “stuff” gifts Christmas morning.  And it works for us.

Have a happy and a merry.

The Body As Self: Weight Identity for a Young Ballet Dancer

For years I struggled with identity without thinking about identity.  I was a secular Jewish, black and white biracial girl, an only child of “older” parents, an Upper Westside kid.  But I didn’t think about these designations.  More important than anything else was that I was a ballet dancer, and all that it entailed: daily after school practice, weekends booked with rehearsals, summers in a hot studio, no vacations, no French fries, no non-dancer friends.  When, I broke ranks and went to a liberal arts college instead of joining a ballet company, I was suddenly a swan out of pointe shoes, lost without the familiar ballet culture, but also deeply curious and so excited about what else the world might have in store for me.  I didn’t realize that my life was about duality, always straddling two roles, two cultures, navigating two divergent paths.  I said I struggled without thinking about it because I had no time to think about struggling with identity or anything else; all through college I had a full time job whose name was bulimia.

I’d been anorexic in high school, but in college, the stress led me to abuse food as a substance rather than starve myself.  Being thin was all that was left of my ballet self, I thought.  And I clung to it.

I had an eating disorder from the age of eleven until I was twenty-three, and at no point did I understand that this had to do with pain, a refusal to accept my body or myself.   I wonder what would have happened if one of the therapists I saw at the time had gotten me thinking about identity.

Who exactly are you anyway?

Who am I?  Thin, that’s who.

No, I mean besides that.

I had no idea.   Skinny was my starting point, my grounding: if I could feel my hip bones, if I stood feet together and my thighs didn’t touch, I was okay.

I remember a session when I was nineteen.  I was on a year’s hiatus from college to dance.  I’d just signed a contract with the Cincinnati Ballet and was preparing to move to Ohio.  I’d be rooming with a friend from my ballet school, Alessandra (name changed), who was also anorexic.  I was anxious about the move but not for the reason my therapist thought.

“Leaving home can be difficult,” she said, “to go far away for the first time brings up all kinds of feelings.”

This was true, but I’d lived away from home for a whole year in college.  Before that, I’d spent summers in California with friends.   What I was really afraid of was living with Alessandra, whom I knew was a “better” anorexic than I was.  She had restriction down to a science, never lapsed into vulgar binging and purging as I did.  She was thinner.

It’s hard to write this, hard to imagine that I once felt this way, but a big piece of my identity was being the thinnest among my closest friends.   Granted I now lived in the world of professional ballet, where reed-like was the norm.  My body-type dictated that I would never the thinnest in the dance studio.  Being just five foot three and busty—despite weighing well under one hundred pounds—disqualified me, I thought, from having the ideal dancer’s body.   In a land where a B cup is considered huge, I was a C-D, which did make me appear heavier than my scantly endowed counterparts.  But thinner dancers didn’t bother me so much in the rehearsal studio. There was distance between me and those girls.  They weren’t my closest friends; they weren’t my family, so they didn’t infringe on the space where I was me.  I was afraid of living with someone like Alessandra because I imagined that she was more me than I was.