I look back at the thirteen-year-old girl in this photo, this totally normal, average looking girl on the cusp of teenagehood, and I almost can’t remember why she hated herself so much. Where are the giant fat rolls that she thought she had? Where is the hideous chubby face with the double chin and where are the jiggling thunder thighs and the stocky cankles and whatever other insane bodily flaw we’ve invented?
I can’t believe that what I’m seeing, captured for all time with undeniable photographic evidence, is the same person who was looking at herself in the mirror, wondering if someone could magically chop three inches of fat off her thighs.
Because what I see is lovely and awkward and fabulous in her flares and blue-foam platform shoes and sunglasses, totally average and normal and healthy. (If you’re wondering how foam platforms could be considered normal, just remember it was 1998.)
I spent so many years following just utterly hating myself. Scrutinizing everything about my body; agonizing over every detail: the stretch marks on my boobs, the flab around my biceps, the amount of fat that would smush out the to sides when I bent my knees. I hated everything about myself. And recently something has occurred to me: it’s because I thought I was supposed to.
I thought I was supposed to hate myself because I wasn’t super skinny, or didn’t have long legs or an Audrey Hepburn neck or shiny straight hair. I thought this, was convinced of it, actually, for most of my life. And I got fatter, I think, because of it.
And then, sometime in my mid-to-late twenties, I started to realize I didn’t hate myself. I actually kind of liked myself, even. “Okay, Saadia, you’re always going to be a little fat, but you’ve got that hourglass thing going for ya, and also who cares?” started to become my tune. But I didn’t totally believe it until – cue dramatic “we knew it was coming” music – until I became a mother. And my body was shit during pregnancy, but damn did it still grow an incredible baby. And my body was shit right up til labor, but then – damn, it was gold. It was miraculous. It was all strength and beauty and holy hell am I in awe when I think back on all that it was then.
And now this body has a daughter. A little girl who might be lanky like her daddy or chubby like her mama, or something totally her own. And I want her to feel nothing but love for the warm tiny machine that holds her soul. I want her to feel inspired by every nerve ending and blood vessel and hair follicle. She inspires me, and my body, once hated, now inspires me to. My body brought her body, every cell of it, into this world.
So I don’t really give a shit anymore if my ass is wide or my stomach is flabby, because this body is mine. It holds all my secrets, all my wishes, all my loves. It’s mine. And it doesn’t belong to anyone else.
I just wish I had known that when I was an adorable thirteen-year-old. I wish I hadn’t waited so long for someone to tell me I could love myself. I wish I could have just done it.
Long after we should be asleep, her hands are like arcade game claws, grasping for my hands, clutching the air with determined desire but a lack of precision.
We play like this for quite some time, and I lament the fact that it’s been two days since I last snipped her razor-like baby talons. I never knew baby nails grew so fast. Her grip is so strong these days, and she’s gotten less robotic in her movements, despite the fact that her arms reach out for me, all angles and starts-and-stops, still. Yet somewhere in the last few days she’s begun to sway her arms, rather than drop them; to wait to grab the prize with her long fingers, fixing her eyes for a moment, before making the dive.
Sometime, so quietly, so without circumstance – she changed again.
As I write, I keep being reminded of the e.e. cummings poem that begins,
since feeling is first
who pays attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
Somehow it resonates with me when I think of trying to capture my birth experience. There were so many words unspoken during my labor because feeling was always first (and last, and everything in between), and yet there are so many words here. I fear that no matter how hard I try, they will never kiss you. Here I am, trying anyway. Continue reading →
Having a labor that initiates itself 5 days before you actually meet your baby makes it hard to remember everything as it happened. First, there are too many days and so much waiting that it becomes difficult to remember how you filled your time. And second, by the time you actually meet your baby, you are so tired from working for so long, that it is difficult to remember the details. The things you keep replaying over and over again are the feeling of that final push, knowing you will see your baby in just a moment; the feeling of baby on your chest; that feeling of “it’s finally over” paired with “this has just begun” that leaves you bereft of speech. The rest is blurred in a haze of too many hours, coming back to you in images and sensations. Or, that’s what it was like for me. But that’s the end of the story, so where to begin?
Kiran’s birth story doesn’t begin with water breaking, contractions starting, or anything physical. Her true birth story would have to encompass all of Patrick and my story – our relationship, how we met, the last ten years of our lives; all the stops and starts along the way. Those stops and starts sent deep reverberations into how Kiran came to us. But her story also goes beyond that to how we got to be where we are. It includes our parents’ stories, our grandparents’ stories – stories of courtships, migration, things lost and things found. Without those things – the love letters Patrick and I wrote to each other from different states, different continents; the choices our families made to come to New York, leave New York – without those stories, how would Kiran have come to be? Her birth is tied to that history irrefutably. My heart is full thinking of how Patrick and I will tell Kiran all of those stories big and little, weaving the fables of our family for the rest of her life. But those stories are for another time. So I will instead find the thread of how Kiran began to come into this world, how she slowly, slowly, slowly descended, and how hard she and I worked for each other. That is the story I will tell. And I will tell it for Kiran.
I’m trying not to think of next year; trying not to make a decision about the trajectory of my life; trying not to look forward, all so that I won’t look back. I’m just not ready for it.
Today I packed up my classroom, room 208. I remember so well the feeling of unpacking it, of walking the four endless flights of stairs in the sticky August heat with box after box after box; setting down each one atop another desk with P. looking at me, exhaustedly after each trip; the sweet, unidentifiable aroma of the second floor in the warmth, a smell that I now know my dear friend Linda is responsible for with her incense cubes.
I remember fasting and feeling desperate for water as I blew dust like dandelion snow and sneezed for minutes afterward, particles stuck in my throat and nose. One of my students would sneeze like that each day of the year, and I would always think I just never got those back shelves quite clean enough.
I remember the feeling of nervous excitement, of anticipation; the feeling of pride as I hung the painting of the deer, adjusted the placement of my plants, clicked on my two lamps, and watched P. drill holes into my closet door to install the full-length mirror. (A mirror that would become famous among my students – I would often have them come in to “check themselves out” between classes and I would shoo them away, telling them to BE ON TIME! Several students told me that I’d see a lot of them next year, as I “have the best mirror in the school.”)
I remember the musty, yellow smell of the ragamuffin books on the one shelf in my room, the feeling that I needed to bring them back to life, bring the room back to life, bring myself into life. My new life. A life in which I would spend most of my week in that very room, with its cornflower walls and squeaky ceiling. I imagined myself clicking the lamplight on in the early winter mornings in my room, sitting at my desk grading papers, or planning, or eating my daily apple; or, simply being.
But I don’t remember the winter, don’t remember the cold weather. At least not by smell. I always say that smells change throughout the seasons; talk about how my parents’ home smells deliciously summerish when it gets warm, a smell that may be old wood expanding in the humidity, or allergens, or sweat, but to me means freedom and peace and long, languid afternoons spent floating in the pool and eating pretzels with pruney fingers – pretzels that always taste better because of the chlorine residue and the fact that mom put them out in the white metal bowl with the blue trim. But there’s nothing that reminds me of winter in room 208. Not even those lamps with their 60-watt bulbs softening the bleached fluorescence in the room, nor my winter boots sitting in puddles of former snow near the radiator, nor my thick socks on my curled up toes; not even the asbestos tiles on the floor. I did sit at my desk on those winter mornings, grading by lamplight, but that’s not what I think of when I think of my room, of my BKHS.
What I do think of are those humid, humid, beyond humid afternoons, my brow accumulating sweat despite the ferociously loud air conditioner (far more bark than bite, let me tell you), and the peace of organizing, of sorting, of putting things where they belong in my little world. Of finding treasures, like a lock of baby hair in a sock drawer: the letters my students wrote me on the first day of school, or the remnants of school days past; the bubbled handwriting of a now fully-grown student, or the forgotten resume of a young teacher with boyish annotations. All these I inspect, smile at, regard as sacred.
I wonder what of myself will be left behind when I leave. Who are we in pieces? What pieces of myself will remain and what will the person who finds them think of me? Will they find my lessons and think me creative, or neurotic, or neither? Or perhaps my letter to my students and think me sentimental, or devoted? Or perhaps they will find the letter I wrote to them, whoever they are, taped to the top of the little drawer in my desk, and understand.
What I do think of are the sounds of boisterous laughter echoing throughout my room when I have said something “corny,” or when someone has made a joke. What I do think of are the moments when I had to cover my face with a book because I was laughing so hard (usually trying to conceal my amusement at an off-color comment). What I do think of are my students skipping down the hallways after finding out their grades on the Regents, or having me call their mother to tell them that, YES, they passed! And yes, you should be so proud. What I do think of are the moments I felt my eyes well up during writes, and then spilling over when my students read about their families, and the homes they have left, and their broken hearts, and their endless, endless love. What I do think of are the moments when my stomach would flip-flop over and over, a student in my face and challenging me, and me, fighting with myself internally. What I do think of are the millions of moments spent sharing life with my kindred spirit. What I do think of are the looks on the faces of all of my students on the last day of class, when we realized that we had made it. We had made it to the end, together.
We began in a circle on an 80-degree day, and ended in a circle on an 80-degree day.
And I packed and packed today, carrying box after box down the four endless flights of stairs, joking about the elevator being broken, as on the first day of school, packing my things into our hunter green Honda Civic, feeling like I was moving, but not knowing where from or to. As we pulled away from the school, I didn’t look too hard, didn’t want to say goodbye, didn’t need to. It’s not goodbye, really. Only goodbye to this year, only goodbye to the Saadia of this year. So I did not roll down the window and rest my head on the door as I watched Longwood Avenue recede into the distance. Rather, I sang to the music in my head, looked long at the man sitting next to me, the one who was with me on the first day, and will be on the last, and was in love. With the summer, with a teaching life, with the person that teaching makes me. A better person than who I am without.
So I will not look forward today, nor back. Instead, I will stop for a moment, and look around.
my students asked me today why, when I ask them to write for full presence, I also ask them to write for the full time given, and what, if they have nothing to say, I expect them to write. I told them about writing to think. how important that is. I told them about the times when I sometimes lie awake at night, unsure of the “why” I’m lying awake, but completely conscious of the fact that I am, as it happens, utterly awake, and generally holding a heavy stone in my stomach. I told them about how in those moments I take out some pen and paper and write, steam of consciousness, not knowing what’s going to come out, only knowing that above all else, I must. keep. writing. they didn’t know what stream of consciousness was, so I explained it to them. I shared with them the essence of what I wrote SOC last time I did, and they asked me to read it to them, as though I would have it, as though I live in the closet at school, as though the closet is like mary poppins’ brocaded bag; stick your arm in and everything you could possibly want it right there. unfortunately, I don’t live in that world, or, as it happens, the closet at the back of my classroom, so I couldn’t share it. I told them I would and I also realized simultaneously how completely impossible it is to give into ones self-conciousness as a teacher. I can’t count on my fingers and toes how many times I’ve given into that hollow self-doubt and reticence, shielded myself from the monster that would surely come out of its hiding place the moment I came out of mine. but it’s funny being a teacher, because you can’t recede. you cannot turn off with a slight internal whir and go blank, or bleary, or bye-bye. you have to keep going, forge ahead. so when your students ask you to read something you wrote stream-of-consciousness last Tuesday night at 3:30 am, you say “of course I will” and you pretend to be brave because you hope that in pretending to be brave, you will model the bravery you want your students to internalize for themselves, and maybe, just maybe some of them will be brave enough to write without having a topic and write without knowing where it will go and write and share afterwards, and just maybe, maybe you might actually be brave yourself.