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A Self Portrait by SM

I. On Categories


I don't like categories. All my life people have tried to label me and put me in a neat little box with nothing spilling over the edges. The thing is, I'm a person, not paperwork, and people aren't simple, they're complex - I'm complex, and so is my life.


When I think of where I should start explain-ing, my mother comes to mind. While I was growing up, she told me I could be whatever I wanted to be if I put my mind to it and worked hard. I believed her, and still do. Never doubting my capacity to achieve this and that, I gave everything my very best shot-- be it ballet or drawing or math or swimming. However, not everyone understood this. At school, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer ballerina, writer, astro-naut, vet. My answers were usually met with "you can't do that". "You can't do that be-cause" you're a girl, Arab (half), European (half), too short, too middle-class, not smart enough, not talented enough, not pretty enough, not this, not that, not whatever. Nothing fit. Actually, I didn't fit anything. According to my teachers, classmates, friends, I wouldn't be able to do what I wanted. My list, between the ages of six and twelve, consisted of the following things:


1. become a ballerina.


2. write a book.


The first was considered impossible by eve-ryone (except my mother) because I was, and still am, half Arab. Have you ever heard of an Arab ballerina? No? Well, there you go then, you can't be one. You want to write a book? What book? Normal people don't write books. Writers write books. You have to have talent. What do you want to write about? You don't know? Well then, you can't write a book.


But I can?


I was crushed, so I stopped writing (I im-mersed myself in reading instead) and I quit ballet partially due to an injury and partially because I was tired of all the other girls getting better parts than me (even when I was a better dancer) just because they were fair-skinned and taller.


I didn't write again until I was in my last year at college, when I finally plucked up the courage to take the writing class I'd signed up for and dropped out of three times by then.


I can.


II. Soul Food


I feel the urge to compare life, at least mine, to a bowl of spaghetti - tangled and very, very messy. But also very, very, good, and in-credibly satisfying.


I love food. I don't just like food, I love food. I understand food, and two of my happiest places to be are in the kitchen and at farmers' markets. There is something about food that's really special to me. I think it has to do with my childhood. My mom was a great cook, and we always had meals together, all of us, at the dinner table. Here we would talk, joke, and share stories about our day and things that were happening with us.


My love for food is different in that it stemmed from my hatred of food and of myself. When I turned thirteen, my family moved to another city, and my routine changed a lot. I wasn't doing all the extracurricular activities that I had been used to, and I gained a lot of weight (I wasn't fat, just heavier than usual). This, along with not having any friends in the new city, depressed me. I tried not to eat as much, but I really enjoyed food. So I became bulimic. It started out as a joke, really, but then I started losing weight, so I kept doing it. I got to the point where I didn't really need to make myself throw up anymore, it just came automatically. My eating disorder reached a climax during my first year at university.


In the Autumn of 2001, my mother died of cancer, and I didn't let myself grieve. I pretended that nothing was wrong. During my first year at university, the relationship that I had been in with my boyfriend for four years ended, and I became increasingly insecure. I kept thinking that all of the people that I loved and cared about kept leaving me. I stopped eating altogether, and when I ate, even a little, I would throw up.


I remember once - and this moment sticks out vividly - when I was dragged to a barbecue at the park by F., one of my best friends, and she had to spoon-feed me. I remember sitting on a bench after that and completely breaking down because I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't know how to even be.


I had to confront something I hated. I hated myself, but I wasn't ready for that. I thought I hated food. So I cooked and baked and went grocery shopping, and I ate. I ate and ate and ate. And ate. I ate for my mother and my broken relationship and my friends, but most of all I ate for myself. I ate because I thought it would make me better. I ate because it forced me to think, I ate because it felt good to eat and I wanted to be okay. I wanted to be okay for myself because at night I would sit in my room and try to fall asleep and I would be alone, so it didn't matter if I was okay for somebody else. I had to be okay for myself.


III. Matters of the heart and earth


There is something I believe about relation-ships: that there should always be give and take. I believe this about life too, which I treat as a relationship in itself, between me and the world. I think relationships should always be equal, from all parties involved. My first serious relationship was one that didn't end very well. It lasted four years, and even though it wasn't the healthiest relationship, I learned a lot. I gave the person I was with a lot of my time, and I put a lot of effort into the relation-ship, always making it a priority and putting a lot of energy into it. He didn't reciprocate. He was more passive and laid-back, and the attention and effort he was putting into the rela-tionship was minimal compared to mine. I was over-zealous, and he was under-enthusiastic. I think it's an extreme example, but it really made me think about what makes relationships, of all kinds, work. I've come to the conclusion that it's time and effort. I see it more objectively with my friends. I have friends who call just to see how I am and what I'm up to, and I have friends who only call when they need something or when something is wrong. Otherwise, I always have to call them. These are good people, mind you, but the relationship for me, doesn't work. The dynamics of it are very one-sided, and it gets tire-some. You give of yourself as a person (because that is what we tend to do when we care about, or love someone) and they don't return the same. That to me is odd. I don't want this to be confused with doing things and expecting something in return-- that is different. For example, I don't give my friends birthday presents expecting something in return, I give them because I want to. But I do expect my friends to take part of the responsibility for keeping our relationship going. I don't want to feel like I'm always the one asking them to go out or spend time together. It makes me feel like they just don't care enough about me and our friendship. I have a group of close friends now that I love and admire. They are quirky people with big hearts, and they call me (!!!) so we end up going out a lot and spending time together, which is new for me, because I don't think I've ever had such good friends.


I think I have an interesting relationship with the earth compared to most people around me. I really like the environment. I live in the city, but I'm a country girl at heart. One of my favorite smells in the whole world is the smell of freshly-cut grass. Maybe it's because of how I was raised, or because of my aunt, who takes me out on these incredible walks in the woods in the summer, and who is a new-age hippy of sorts, that I like the earth. I think people always seem to ask what the earth can do for us, but not many people stop to think what we can do for the earth. I've started recy-cling everything lately, and I'm driving my dad insane because he comes home every day and finds something new (and sometimes slightly odd!) in the apartment we live in. I wish that where I live we could have more parks and beaches and less malls. I think that the next place I move to will have to allow me to have a big garden so I can grow my own vegetables and have more cats.


I really like myself now, and I really like my life. Sometimes I still wish I could be a little bit taller, but I don' think I'd change anything in the way I look. I'm really comfortable with myself too. I used to get really self-conscious if I had to walk around on my own, but now I even go to coffee shops and sit down by myself, no worries. For me that's a big deal. I really like my life because I've made it the way it is now. If there's something that I don't like, I change it. I've made some choices that seemed scary and awkward, but I made them, because they were there for me to make, and I could.