Thursday, June 25, 2009

Privilege

It was nearing 11 p.m., and I walked into the restroom at work, and she was there, beginning to wash the sinks. On some nights, she and I are the only two people left on the 14th floor at this hour. We never speak.

She is older than I am. Maybe in her early 40s, maybe older, maybe younger. She has frazzled hair, cut into a messy bob, dyed a dark honey blonde color. But it's fading. And her roots are gray and black. She is heavyset, 5'2'' at most, and she has dark, sad eyes. She has deep wrinkles around those eyes. Rough skin. And she wears an ill-fitting, shapeless blue dress -- her uniform -- as she cleans our office at night.

I was wearing heels. Pants. A cashmere sweater. I was thinking about whether I had time to get a manicure before visiting my niece tomorrow and whether I should bring my flat iron to Italy when I went on vacation Friday...

And I felt like a terrible person, watching out of the corner of my eye as she wrung out a rag. I don't know what language she speaks, but she knows little English. We look away from each other a lot. As I edit our Web site, she tries to vacuum around my bag on the floor. I feel torn between picking it up to make it easier for her and feeling like picking it up makes it worse.

"You missed a spot."

See? That made you cringe. I feel like an ass having written it.

But so often I forget exactly how privileged I am in this world, and this woman brings it to the front of my mind, mostly because the look on her face every night, tired, worn out... We work in the same place at the same time, but I have never less "together" in someone's presence. And its particular to her. I wonder what it is that I see in her that makes me feel so... so much like I need to apologize to her for existing.

I have not had an easy life, but compared to most of this planet, I was born into a life of ease. I will likely never be truly hungry. I have a home. I have a good family that loves me that would take me in if I needed them to. I have money to travel to interesting places. I can spend $13 on a cocktail just because it looks delicious. I have an amazing education and have been given and earned extraordinary opportunities... I work in a fancy building. Eat in fancy restaurants. Can spend hundreds on a handbag and it just makes me feel embarrassed. It doesn't change a thing about my life.

Sometimes I dwell on the things that make me grouchy -- I almost wrote "unhappy," but its hard to really claim to be "unhappy," even with my current set of tribulations. And I have the luxury of walking away if the cost begins to outweigh the reward.

I am a fifth-generation American living in a posh neighborhood of New York City in the 21st Century.

I am what my ancestors came here to give their children the chance to become.

I wish we could show them.

There is a photograph of me as an infant. We are on the balcony of my great-great grandmother's apartment, above the family's bar in Manayunk, in Philadelphia. In this photograph: my great-great grandmother Sophia, my great-grandmother Helen, my grandmother Doris, my mother Karen, and me, Jennifer.

Five generations of women. Mother and daughter. From Poland to Philadelphia. From the Old World to the New. A chain of hope and optimism and striving to give your little girl a life without the things you endured.

Sitting in my grandmother's house in Saturday, in between my cousin's wedding and the reception, another photograph was taken.

My sister held her two-week-old daughter, Diana, sitting between my mother and my grandmother. Four generations of my family, smiling as I snapped my camera, looking at an echo of my own life, captured in a moment full of hope. Marriage. Birth. Future. Past. All at once.

And our wee girl, my beloved niece, has also been born into a world of privilege. She sleeps in safe, secure homes. She doesn't go hungry. She has more than enough clothes. When she is awake, around her family, we can't put her down.

We will do whatever we can to teach her, and to teach her cousins, my own children, and the rest of her generation, how to be compassionate and generous and loving. And to strive to be better and to leave things better than they found them. To encourage all that is noble in ourselves and to try and hide the ugly things until they must be confronted. She will someday squirm, forced to deal with who she is and how she fits into the world. And we will try to make that easier.

Until she was born, my thinking on these things centered on myself. On what I could do to feel less guilt over feeling I'd gotten off easy in this world in so many ways... But now I wonder how to make it even easier for someone else. But also question how to make sure she can still see. Can still know that what she has took generations to achieve. And that everyone that came before her built the world as best they could so that she could sleep peacefully at night, well fed on a soft pillow.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Older, yes. Wiser, maybe?

I have a Polaroid photograph of myself, standing in the Ocean City High School library wearing a worn gray acrylic sweater that I found at a thrift store, because I so desperately wanted to fit in with my oh-so-edgy girlfriends at the time that I wore frumpy, $2 thrift store sweaters and listened to Tom Waits because that's where I had tried to fit in.

I have kept this photograph on my book shelf, half-way hidden behind a small box of Japanese incense sticks and a handful of "important' receipts, for perhaps a year. Occasionally I look at it, and I stare at my smile and wonder why I ever thought I wasn't beautiful. Why when I was that girl, I thought I was a just the most awkward, unloveable girl ever born, and should probably just stay that way. And it seemed I was confirmed. One evening at a friend's house, she turned to me and said, "I think we're good enough friends now... They say you used to be such a pretty girl. What happened to you?"

"Uh....."

Exactly. I have a scar on my forehead. Even if an evil zealot threw acid on my face because I tried to go to school (try being a girl in Afghanistan), I would be a minor flicker on the world's list of "people messed up by sh*t that just happened."

The girl in the ill-fitting gray cheap thrift-store sweater is the one who answered that question with a blanched look of panic and a "Uh, I had an accident." And when she pressed for more of an answer, I actually felt myself shut down. I answered through a veil of post-traumatic stress disorder and shame. The double-sided coin of being different, even if it is something that hurt YOU. Not any other way, lest the other way around.

I was so self conscious, I heard those words and felt like I might as well have died. I should have died. Spared everyone and myself the horror of having to look at the lines that marked my darkest, direst days.

And here we fast forward. To a time when I had finally decided that the girl in the picture, the one who was so shy she hid her hands, even though she was the "smartest girl in the whole school" and was going to the Ivy League. Even though she had the lead in the play and was the captain of the tennis team. That girl was so shy, she stood to pose for a photograph in the library and hid her hands in the sleeves of her shirt. To reach for anything would be absurd.

Who grants gifts to broken things?

Apparently time does heal all wounds. Or at least make them bearable. Less sinister. More relational. We learn to take what we can from how things change us. I, for example, have no ability to differentiate between a look from someone who thinks I'm attractive and someone who thinks I'm a spectacle, unless they catch my eyes. Our eyes don't lie. So much else in our faces can though. It's astounding.

I see people stare at me, and I judge whether its because I am different or because I am beautiful depending on my mood. If I feel strong, I get shy under the glances of admirers. If I feel ashamed, I imagine they are horrified at my scars. I am a monster. Wrecked.

When the truth is, who the hell knows what anyone is thinking when they look at you.

He could be grimacing about a fight with his wife. About laundry. About a daughter asking an embarrassing question.

She could be shy about having kissed him too soon. Too wrapped up in pleasing her boss to even actually see the woman she's staring at and scowling towards.

We all assume the reactions of others are rooted in the things we worry about ourselves, and we are seldom right.

I wish I could tell the girl in that picture that someday, the woman she would become would look at her and think she was exquisite, and to reach out and embrace every inch of her life. Thrust those hands out of those sleeves and stand proud.

Because that had always been the right thing to do. The way things should have been.

A shining, beautiful smile gracing a child -- who would one day become a woman who would look back at herself and wish for things to have been different, but know that things happened as they did to make today. And realize the elegance of a revelation that leads to self forgiveness.

And rejoice.