There are great cliches about people with a history of disordered eating. One, of course, is that food becomes very important to them. With my history, food has always been at the root of my experiences.
My father didn't eat. And if we did, as kids, he would say You ate yesterday and our hungry bellies would drop. Food became taboo. So much so, I vividly remember being five and almost choking on a hotdog so I could eat it before my father caught me. I remember being four and my father counting the ice cream sandwiches in the freezer and being punished for eating them. I remember being older and hiding in the pantry to eat. When food is a crime, you don't care what you put into your mouth, every morsel is a tiny revolution.
It wasn't only food, though, it was what food could do. Food had the power to nourish and comfort but it also made you wider in the hips and filled cheeks with color. When I look back on pictures of myself in middle school, I'm a stranger to myself. My whole perception of myself given to the loudest voice in the room, I would cup my belly fat in my hands and hate myself for it. I would believe flabby, fatty. It was true that I would be beautiful if I was skinny. And, pretty soon, the only voice louder becomes the one in your head. The one that only repeats the worst thoughts. And so I stopped eating. I only let myself indulge in Weight Watchers approved foods, I learned how to make myself throw up. I got so dehydrated and malnourished I fainted in Las Vegas and, when I came to, I was afraid the IV would make me fatter. I took sodium pills because I wouldn't eat anything with salt on it. Those pictures, now, are of a girl who was only as fat and ugly as she let herself believe. My arms, which I hated, were thin. My belly, which I thought made me an ogre, was just human.
And that became my first foray into cooking: control. If I made it, I knew what was in it. I did not eat to enjoy, I ate to punish. Because I had known food only to lead to punishment. The Saturdays spent being bullied into eating tomatoes, my least favorite food, and--when I couldn't stomach it--being punished. I was the fatty who couldn't eat the healthy foods my father wanted me to eat. On Saturdays, my parents would go out for lunch. It was really the only time my father ate and it was the only time, as a child, I remember my parents really spending time together. Getting to go out for lunch with them was a glimpse into a teasingly normal family dynamic. And so I would do try my best. I would work on the times tables and coax my gag reflex into swallowing the mushy, seedy, tomatoes. But, often, I failed. I would be left at the windowsill, watching the car drive away, hysterical. I had failed. I was a failure. A fat, ugly, failure.
I would starve myself and wait for my father to compliment me. He never did.
But, when I moved to New York, I thought food and I were liberated. It wasn't simple as that; I spent a lot of time reverting to old habits. In college, especially, I would eat nothing but a cup of soup and then walk up the 17 flights of stairs to my dorm room. I was known for my cupcake obsession and my illicit dorm room cupcake maker. I wanted to be a happy, baker person. And so, when I first lived alone, following the summer of 2015, it was my chance to reinvent myself. For the first time in my life, I stopped comparing myself to other bodies. I turned off the voices that told me I would be beautiful if I was skinny--and that's why no one loved me. I baked when I wanted, and shared my wares with my students. I meal-prepped and ate foods that were nourishing and comforting. I filled my home with whatever foods I wanted to try. Baked cookies with butter, even though--growing up--we only made them with applesauce. Food was my friend. And it was delicious.
I take food pretty seriously. Probably still for control but, different yet. I still can't get myself to eat creamy things. I hate tomatoes. I am quick to fall into old habits and, if I don't monitor the voices, they have their worst lines memorized.
We're at that weird point of the summer where, in a normal year, I'm enjoying the time off. I'm in the midst of projects, maybe teaching summer school, definitely partaking in my fair share of sunny shenanigans. We've had picnics and movie nights, rooftop drinks, bridge walks. We've gone to free concerts, all of the museums, visited every new bakery. There have been lots of tacos. I'm almost ready to go back to work, but then I find another show on Netflix that I haven't seen yet or more goods to be baked, so not really.
But this is not a normal summer. In fact, summer has gone on for far too long. The forever-vacation, that started in March, has become my own personal bell jar. I spend most of my days in the same athlesiure shorts. I had to retire the matching HOMEBODY sweatshirt at the beginning of June but the shorts have become sort of like a quarantine uniform. I obsessively check my emails, I can't sleep. I fall silent. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again. Sometimes the world does feel like a bad dream.
But we're slowly getting back into the swing of real-life. Not that I have any idea what that will look like but--it's official--I am Mrs. Ziskin, 8th grade ELA teacher. And I couldn't be more excited for using my new name in this new classroom. And, how lucky am I, to spend my days with my favorite person?! When I left our old school, Jordan and I mourned the end of our together-days: We were afraid it was the end of something magnificent. All we wanted was to capture and bottle the way it felt to be able to walk into the room and see our person, whenever we needed to. Send a text and they appear. To share lunch, snacks, laughs. And, somehow, less than a month later, we were back at it: no more than five seconds away from one another. Sneaking snacks on Zoom calls, mid-day cuddle breaks, making tea.
But then the weekend hits and it feels so much like the weekdays. Only there are less emails. And, suddenly, you realize you've already done everything you needed to do this week. Where weekends used to be a catch-all, now it's dropped time. And the courses I've taken, the books I've read, the planning I've gotten done--none of it happens fast enough or feel productive enough. The world, for the first time, lacks purpose. The hours hold less meaning.
I try to enjoy it while I can, knowing this--like everything--is fleeting. I have a hand-full of gratitudes that are as consistent as the days of the week (Jordan, exercise, mom, wedding plans, tea) and something, every day, that grounds me.
I take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.
Even though the days all look the same, rolling from one to another like far-away waves, they don’t all f e e l the same. Some days I get up early and work up a sweat. Then, pink-faced and ready for the day, I work on recipes or a course online or sit down and journal. I read. Do some work, even.
We may even mask-up and go outside to social distance our way through Brooklyn, remembering when passerby would aggressively bump right shoulders and never apologize. You start to miss the abuse of the city. Too docile, now. She’s lost her bite.
But it all feels somewhat productive. I’m grateful for days like this where, even though nothing is normal, I can remember how normal use to feel (the pounding of routine in the balls of my bare feet).
Other days, I can barely convince myself that life beyond the comforter has meaning.
I think about the wasted months and stew in a puddle of my own disappointments; the waters thick from months of rain.
I look ahead to the plans I have made only to unmake (big ones) and can’t see how a made bed or freshly made cinnamon buns will ever make-up for what has been taken away.
I try not to get stuck there. I daydream far enough ahead that the virus won’t catch me. I put on a brave face, like so many of us do, and take a collection of deep breaths.
But some days are easier than others. And I know I’m just having a pity-party and I’m lucky. For health. For home. For all we have.
Hello, everybody. Hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. If you want to know some of my random brain-thoughts, when we are allotted too much time for brain-thoughts, please feel free to read along. If not, that’s quite alright. I won’t be offended.
I don’t do my hair or wear make-up but I didn’t really do those things before (when I could help it). I thought I would like this; as a self-professed homebody. I imagined time at home, no-excuses-necessary, would be heaven sent.
I didn’t realize how much of my day required the outside world. How much I would miss my friends, my nightly socializing, walking into a grocery store, brunch at Time Out Market, going into work...the things you take for granted.
It’s almost May. And I remember where I was last almost-May; the things I worried about, the way I spent my days. This is a different world.
And so I’m doing the day-by-day song and dance and holding my loved ones a little tighter. I wake in gratitude, for the things we have. I’m practicing my breathing and trying to remind myself that this, like everything, is only temporary. And, boy, will these be stories to tell some day.
A Closed-Letter to Corona Virus (it would be an open letter but nothing's open anymore),
It feels universal: that gnawing pit behind the belly-button, the rock by the larynx, the heaviness behind the eyes. As a child, I think you dream of the day the world stops: No school, your parents staying home, making pillow-forts and reading The Little Prince. It sounds fanciful and full of snacks before snack-time and sneaking chocolate chips from cookie batter. But, the reality of the world stopping is far more bleak. It's staring at screens and cabin fever. It's becoming a sore loser and missing routine. But worse, yet, it isn't just you playing hooky on a Tuesday, it's week-after-week, with no end in-sight. It's jobs that stop paying, it's plans you can't plan for.
And sometimes the un-planning of plans, years in the works, makes it hard to breathe. The build-up, the expectation, the why is this happening to me? But when the selfishness subsides, it's like grasping at straws, sometimes, but there is something
In a world where we have lost so much sense of community, to all be experiencing so much of the same feelings, in real-time, it sobering.
You can find me in the kitchen.
When the whole world has stopped.
I've been baking pies, crimping crust like a prayer. Rolling dough, using my thumbs to turn butter and flour into sand. As though the lines on my hands control the future. I check on my dough more now. Things I used to rely on; yeast to rise dough, heavy cream to make ganache, flake to a crust, I double and triple check, in the new world. I'm finding it increasingly hard to put my blind-baking trust in the universe.
I looked it up: Pie in the sky describes something that is falsely optimistic, a promise of something good happening in the future that is very unlikely to actually take place. When everything gets quiet, I think about my pies in the sky, like wishing on stars. I've made my peace with it. I, who love to claim control, have none. And monsters I spent the better part of a year working through stare me in the face. Grimaces of pretense. The embodiment of all things uncontrollable.
And so I bake another pie. Double crust. To cover the inside. To make the dire appear decadent. It might not feel okay but it is still beautiful.
I'm collecting drafts.
My thoughts finding their way on these pages, only to be tucked away where no one can see. Funny, life reflected online. My draft count climbs into forty beginnings but I haven't posted anything here since July. It's been nearly a year and I have so much to say but I don't always say it anymore.
After a lifetime of growing out (hands, feet, legs), I have just begun growing in (backbone, gut, heart). I have spent a life reflecting--but only scraped the surface. The more I hear my own voice, though, the more I have to stop myself from speaking. Afraid to say too much, I collect drafts: conversations that could have gone differently, whole chunks I should have said.
But I have stopped talking for others: no longer apologizing for mistakes I didn't make, I have learned to wait. When you're studying to be a teacher, people often profess the powers of Wait Time; of giving a room of students the opportunity to internalize a question before moving on. Wait Time is trusting that things will click. Giving, sometimes, more than a comfortable amount of time for the room to catch up with a new concept.
I struggle with silence. Some would say, I hate it. In the classroom, it made sense but--in life? How was I supposed to trust that someone else would start talking? How long was I supposed to wait before trying again?
When I was a child, I was often expected to make the first move. I often apologized, without knowing why, just to end the silence. I remember so much about standing, mostly upright, in a long room with dim lighting. I remember the flicker of the television and the commercial break that meant I had approximately four minutes to say everything I had practiced. When you're a child and given a very tiny window to do the job of an adult, you tend to learn to speak fast and fill the back of your throat with remorse. Eventually that feeling travels into the rest of your body, your blood, and you believe you should feel sorry. You haven't been given the luxury of Wait Time. If you stopped to think, just for a moment, the commercials would end and you would be engulfed in the silence, again. But, if you stopped to think--just for moment--you might also realize you shouldn't have apologized at all. Wait Time is a powerful tool.
So I have begun employing Wait Time, in my daily life. I have stopped giving people the answers, bracing myself to be pleasantly surprised (or disappointed).
When things don't work out the way I had hoped, in class, this would indicate a need to re-teach a concept. In life, this indicates a need to reexamine a situation.
Where I used to rush to fill in the silence, of my own life, I wait to see what would happen if someone else spoke first. Sometimes, I'm learning, you wait months and nothing happens. Sometimes the silence becomes so vast you almost forget. Sometimes, Wait Time works and the other person starts to speak (but that doesn't mean they say the things you needed to hear). So you re-examine. You could re-teach or repair or reply. You could keep waiting.
Or you could let it go.
On the train back to school from Harlem, this Thursday, I had spent the afternoon too-quickly meandering through the ten-block radius between 125th and 135th; between The Schomburg Center and The Apollo, with students it took me all of four days to fall in love with.
Somewhere between the hour long train rides back to Brownsville from a week of excursions to Museums, we have found a rhythm: the clang of subway cars, the lift from above ground to under (and repeat), and the teeter of tiny conversations about books, about dads, about nothing and everything all at once.
This Thursday, though, I had filled my too-big pockets with a polaroid camera and film enough to capture every second, and made a game of candid photos on a scavenger hunt of Harlem. On the train back to Brownsville, I made several unsuspecting subway dwellers uncomfortable by swiveling the face of the polaroid in every which way. A student across from me looked at the object that obscured my face, his eyes squinting in confusion. I extended the camera, across the train, towards him. "Would you like to try?" He hesitated. "I won't take a picture of you--but you can take one of me."
He smiled and grabbed the camera gingerly. Unsure of where to place his fingers on the polaroid's simple face (some things don't come naturally). But, when he was ready, he pressed the button with a flash and film emerged from the top like a receipt.
"Take it out and shake it," I instructed, moving into my favorite part of an OutKast song. I still don't know if he recognized the tune--he was too infatuated by the polaroid picture before him to respond. But he shook it wildly. "Look at the front. Is it developing? Can you see the picture forming?" I asked, enthusiasm contagious and me, most susceptible. He was smiling now. Big. Showing the boy next to him this great discovery. New-age hands fascinated by old technology. The simplicity of watching something come into its own, like ink on a polaroid, or children in summer school.
The boy to his left said, "This is how they know you're from Brownsville," a phrase I had been mindful of overhearing since my first day at this school. And, similar to the affect it has had every time, the words strung together into a needlepoint. The boy who had been shaking his polaroid, deflated.
This, of course, had unconsciously been the intention. These students, products of their parents--products of a world that placed them in a neighborhood they don't see the merit in--are quick to shame the innocence of others. Innocence here is enviable. Too much bad has already happened and nothing is supposed to be made of magic anymore. All that glitters never was gold. Or so we replay, tapes that belong to someone else's inner-child but find a space between our heads and hearts all too easily. Also contagious; a disease that manifests.
As a child, they called my kindness fake. Ripped the heart off my sleeve and promised it wasn't real. Disingenuous. The children around me never could understand the hope that lifted the pucker of my lips into smiles. As an adult, the children around me tell me that, at first, my demeanor seems off-putting. Too nice, perky.
They tell me that they grow to trust me, though. That, most important to me, is a reflection of themselves. Because I trust them, implicitly. And, isn't that something? The way, especially with children, what you give truthfully, you get back a ten-fold.
I remember all of the people who were kind to me. Not because they were few and far between (even if, sometimes, that was true) but because they saw me. They made me feel like I belonged. And, if I never do anything else in my life, I hope that every child I work with (in schools, anywhere) feels seen by me. Feels acknowledged for the things they do well and feels loved for the parts they haven't really gotten down yet, either. The soft kiss of I'm still learning.
The way, if we're paying attention, we are always learning.
As our political climate delves further and further into disarray, it becomes more and more difficult to write in a blog; to post feelings. An emotionally charged girl, in an emotionally charged world, I have always loved writing here. I have always found a perfect hideaway in words. But, these days, our words betray us. Our every thought offends, the very nature of our language has stolen something from someone.
English is a melting-pot language; built on the bones of Latin and Greek. Dead languages.
And, yes, America, is a melting-pot country; built on the bones of freedom-fighters--who lost their lives to invent homes for the homeless.
When we forget where we've come from, we forget ourselves. William Hazlitt has some variation of that, in one of his many volumes. I've taken half a year away from little bit of cinnamon to work on Left2Write (since my last post we have started and completed our trial run: five schools and literary magazines, 180 students, 80 scholarship applicants), contemplate my voice, and think about the future. But I've missed having a forum like this for word-vomit. I think there's comfort in knowing our stories exist, even if we're the only ones to find them.
Now, I don't speak politics, when I can help it. More into the minutia, the psychology, I sit back and attempt to rationalize. I try to understand. I like to talk in microcosms; to make things personal.
Would I invite people into my home who didn't have anywhere else to go?
What would I do if they became violent?
If they threatened my safety?
Would I continue to invite people into my home who stole? Who lied?
--What if they had children?
And, what about our children? Living in microcosms means that drinking laundry detergent, burning internally, snorting condoms, and doing a dance called floss, are all cries for help. Living in a microcosm means children need their parents and their parents need to be more present. Being present is both an emotional and physical construct. I know people who are easiest to find and the most absent. I read of people who are desperately trying to stay close (and that action alone makes them present).
Living microcosmically means absence is taken very personally, felt in surround-sound, and undeniable.
I have been trying to understand absence, my whole life.
Growing up, I had friends in single-parent households: Mother's juggling all of the responsibilities of raising a family and keeping a home, on their own; their very lifelines formed from too many hours driving to pick up her children, too many days sweeping and mopping, too many dishes. All on her own. I wasn't in a single-parent household but our stories were so similar, I often wondered what it really meant to leave.
I am still trying to understand absence.
When I was doing well in school, my mom and I used to celebrate by sitting in our favorite deli and spending a day with steak fries and chit-chat. That deli is no longer standing and those days were marked absent on my report card but those were the days I felt most present.
I count myself one of the lucky ones: I have learned from my mother how to love, to work, to care, to stay. And 25 years later, I'm learning how to leave. I'm learning how to fight. I am seeing the repercussions for a lifetime of absence. Because it's hard to miss the relationships, the people, the words, you never had.
But, if you're lucky enough to have them, you will fight like hell not to lose them. And who are we to take them away?
We begin, crying. As infants, the absence of language fills our lungs with sound. We speak in gibberish, wail in code, our eyes filling with unnamed feeling. The very water we need to survive, gliding off our cheeks; what we give-up to feel.
As we get older, our too-tiny frames are the wrong size for our feelings. Little boys whose fingers tap drum solos into desks and girls who fall in love with every kid in their class at least once: kindergarten love notes for the ones who could write love songs with the energy in their forefingers. Kids who run away from home to the park, or under the dinner table, anywhere but their room with their books and their socks and their teddy bears---where things are supposed to make sense.
Once we've braved adolescence, it's supposed to get easier. Our bodies have grown proportionally to our lungs, our toes, our hearts. We are supposed to have learned how to navigate feelings, forge healthy relationships, communicate; ask for the things we need--replace whines with words. We've learned how to be appropriate. That How are you? is less an opportunity to share and more a formality.
But some days my emotions are bigger than my body. I have been known to cry in meetings and to take life too personally. Some days, I can hardly breathe.
In some ways, I might be regressing: I used to sufficiently hold myself together. I was always always always always okay. Especially when I wasn't okay at all. But the facade has cracked and I'm much harder to hold together these days. Instead, I surround myself only with the people I don't mind seeing me a little bruised and I do the best I can.
Perhaps it's an improvement; to be more human. To acknowledge the parts of you that ache instead of brushing past them. It's an exercise in mattering. Some days, I revert back to the one-who-wants-you-to-think-she-has-it-altogether but starting something new is humbling. Reflecting can drive you crazy.
I bake less cupcakes, although I wish I didn't, and take shorter showers, even though the monotony of the water used to be my favorite place to think. It's amazing what becomes of our fingertips when we exchange coping mechanisms. I am hard on other people but always harder on myself. In time, I have become self-deprecating. An online survey asked if I was the person other people might call for advice and, even though I knew the answer was yes, instead--I took five minutes to silently berate myself for not being the person I listen to. Why aren't we kind to ourselves? I wish I knew.
I have students who admit they are not their own favorite person --because they aren't done yet. Their parents, they say, are more fully baked. I keep waiting for the moment I have it altogether and maybe that will never happen. Or maybe I'll miss it, in the waiting.
So much is good and so much is terrifying and I spend too much time focused on the things I cannot control. Angry at them for forgetting the facade--for cracking under the pressure.
I wrote here, today, for the first time in months just in case someone was listening. I aim to be a good listener but I hope someday to believe I am worth listening to. When I speak, my sentences begin and end in apology--suffocating the words in between until they're gone.
This is Me:
My name's Melissa. I'm the girl with her hands in her journal. Married to my best friend and planning a lifetime of adventure!