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Archive for July, 2009

For tomorrow we diet. Or the day after. As the case may be. Which is much better. Tomorrow, that is. Because the whole point of a diet is to say you’re on it.

Diets are measures of our self-respect- much as any form of self-abegnation. Or flagellation, which is much closer, pyschologically. In short, I think diets are Catholic: self-esteem by works, not grace. In punishing ourselves culinarily we achieve redemption from the gross fat that damns us from the cult of Health and Beauty- regardless of the physical results, our efforts show that our heart is in the right place. The failure of the diet to make any changes in said grossness removes responsibility from our shoulders, and places it on the shoulders of Provender- I mean, Providence. That is, Nature gives, and Nature taketh away- or not, as she pleases. Thankfully, we’re not required to bless her for it.

Granted, some of us are a little more fanatic. (What is a religion without fanatics?) There are the Pharisees, who count calories, and eat sugar-less-fat-free cardboard and go jogging in trademark sweatsuits. Then there are the Sadducees who prefer the fad diets… all meat, no carbs… all carbs, no meat… cabbage… grapefruit… The Ascetics go vegetarian. The Jesuits go around telling everyone what diet they’re on, and who should be.

Some of us are sinners. We eat. Like, food and stuff. (It’s the stuff that gets you everytime.) Being a generally traditional, religious person, the diet kick was mother’s milk to me. (Literally. Mother and I have shared many diets.) I tried cutting out sugar- which kicked up my caffeine intake; tried eleven day diets- I get the days confused; tried eating once a day- but had too much fun with my evening meal. When I had «sand» in my gallbladder, I ate only buckwheat and oatmeal. Being a dilettante of self-discipline, I tried seeing how little I actually could eat: I can subsist on the Grace Livingston Hill diet of a cup of tea, and a slice of bread and butter in the evening, but it was leading in anorexic directions, and when I started getting nauseous when I ate I quit that. And incidentally quit the diet/self-discipline thing and became a dyed-in-the-wool food sinner. And fattish, to boot.

Because the thing is, there’s food. Lots of it. I read something similar in «Why Frenchwomen are Thin»: the author said that Frenchwomen eat whatever they like and enjoy- but in limited quantities. Which is a diet, if you ask me. For the sake of my self-respect, I don’t gorge myself, but neither do I torture myself with proportions and food balances.

«The world is so full of a number of things….» Pails of pudgy red-gold strawberries, transparent purply currants, sharp cucumbers that smell like spring when you cut them open, small mountains of multicolored mushrooms, sour cream, clinging thickly to the spoon… And the blueberries aren’t even ripe yet. Strawberry shortcake with blancmange in place of whipped cream, pancakes with crushed strawberries and sour cream, dumplings with gleaming red cherries from the bush under the window, quick-salted cucumbers, exhuding essence of dill-and-garlic, mushrooms fried with generous amounts of onions… Who said anything about a diet?!

The real point for a diet atheist is that the whole skinny-as-a-rail thing is overdone and unnatural. If we were supposed to look like sticks, we’d have been born in Auschwitz. Or Africa… Granted, it’s a bit difficult to hold this position when one looks in awed admiration at the canonized saints who have achieved the thin, delicate look with beauty and avoided the martyrization of say, Keira Knightly. One might be almost tempted to genuflect before icons of Halle Berry et al. One must remind oneself very strongly that such characters as Audrey Hepburn are mythological….

Life becomes much simpler when we forego the religious ecstasies of the sacrificial diet. Maybe a bit boring… a bit less romantic… no fluttering hopes of ethereal beauty to comfort us in the dark… But comfortable… practical… delicious, when all is said and done. Ah well, surely chocolate was created that we might enjoy it?!

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Several years ago I read an article in Victoria magazine explaining the concept of a boudoir. A boudoir, while often spoken of in the hushed tones and raised eyebrows of thrilled shock, is not the illicit location for a rendevous. Nor is it the mystic holy of holies for a priestess of modern beauty rituals. One is not required to be a vamp, society queen, or vaporous damsel to be worthy of a boudoir. According to the author (whose name I’ve forgotten) a boudoir is a place for emotional deshabille.

The author went on to describe the perfect boudoir- no candelabra, Louis XIV chairs or chaise longues required, just the things you need to relax: piles of books, a VCR for Betty Grable movies, etc; she also claimed that every French woman has a boudoir of some sort. (Why we consider the French to be the authorities in these matters, I’ve no idea… or rather, I have an idea, but it’s too long to discuss here.)

My point is that it is a very real need: a place for emotional deshabille. A place where no one looks at you, touches you, calls you into responsibility with reality. A place that requires nothing from you.

I tend to be a private person. Oh, I’m generally open and talkative, but I don’t like hanging my soul out to dry in the public eye. I burn my diaries, and periodically expurgate my computer. I wouldn’t call myself secretive, but I don’t like people examining my gizzards with curious interest. And yet I’ve led a very public life. First as a missionary’s/pastor’s daughter- which everyone knows is tantamount to being the child of the United States president, as least as regards paparazzi, public functions, and diplomacy; and then as the (only) native speaker/English teacher in Russian educational institutions- roughly the equivalent of being the elephant in the zoo.

I have developed a very tender relationship with my home; we’re strongly attached. Any of my homes. The home I lived in in Chitinskaya oblast was one room, divided by half partitions, and I shared it with a family of four… The apartment alotted to me in Birobidzhan was bigger, and I lived in it alone- but within the compound: my «neighbors» on the right and across the hall were classrooms, and there was no need of an alarm clock with students racing past my door to classes.

There’s something addictive is being in a place where no one hovers on the edge of your consciousness. You need- or at least I need- a place where the rubber band can relax. After a certain stage of sociability, I can physically feel the fragility of my nerves- my heart races, I breathe jerkily, I have bad dreams and cry in my sleep, and I became persnickety… That’s when I need a boudoir. A place to be myself with no one looking on. A place where I don’t have to think unless I feel like philosophizing. A place where I can let go my grip on the situation, and flex my fingers- not to mention my nerves.

Bathrooms are good for this, also bedrooms. As a matter of fact, buses are too- in their populated anonymity. Einstein claimed he found inspiration in these three places- that is, the bath, bed, and the bus. I’m not so crazy about math; but I can find inspiration more of the physical sort- having the breath of life breathed into my suffocated lungs. Three cheers for baths, beds, and buses!

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Humble Pie

When Christ promised blessing to the humble, did He mean the humble, or those who think they are? This is a serious question, not mere rhetoric. When a person is deliberately, determinedly humble, does that count as humility? Or pride?

I would be humanly inclined to discount such artificial humility; the pretension grates, and anyway, it’s less stress on me… If I can discount others’ virtues as tinkling cymbals, there is no pressure on me to measure up.

And of course, it’s easy to find hypocrisy in others. (And to mark mine off as insignificant.) After all, when my father-in-law states that God listens to HIS prayers because he prays on his knees- and God resists the proud, a little indulgent eye-rolling seems to be in order. Especially when I’m familiar with his sentence constructions- «Those believers loved ME…. those Communists didn’t know what to do with ME… all the prisoners came up to ME to pray for them…» A man who considers the church service a blessing when he’s allowed to speak, and unfulfilling when he’s not makes it easy to discount the humility that insists on eating old bread, refusing cheese or sausage, and saying «We never had such things…» (I mentally hear my mother-in-law snapping, «Kolya, don’t make things up, we did to!»)

Such trumpeted humility is common among the people with whom I live. After all, my father-in-law can’t take all the flack! For one thing, humility is more respected, historically, in Russia than in America. Leo Tolstoi was an evangelist of the glories of the simple life, and the purity of the peasant, and it’s a common literary theme. And then, the communism that was never achieved was supposed to make all equal- not in the American sense of equality, «Be all that you can be», but in the Russian sense of brotherhood and shared opportunity. And naturally, the very real poverty experienced as a natural state of being by many has played its role, too.

Further, humilty was enforced, in a sense, on those who, like my father-in-law, were Baptists in the U.S.S.R. Baptists were considered 1. a sect, and 2. backward. The sad thing is that the force of public opinion has made those slanders true. Many Russian Baptists today do behave like a sect, affecting military discipline, and excluding outsiders; and the majority are insistently backward, refusing too much education, employment, refinement as worldly pride.

Here we need to return to my original question. What counts as humility? My refusal to consider myself humble when I’m really not is not counted to me as a virtue. That’s easy to see. What about my father-in-law’s, and others’ earnest desire to be humble? Granted, it doesn’t result in what we might term true humility- which I would consider dependence on and enjoyment of God, without self-conscious posturing. But surely, their real efforts to please God in this way must count for something. A desire to be humble may not result in true humility; but then again, are people capable of true humilty?

In the end, it’s evident that rather than stopping at the Beatitudes it behooves us to continue to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Because the real point is that it’s not our place to judge my father-in-law’s humilty, or thank heaven, my lack thereof. The Beatitudes are God’s promises, therefore they are in His hands to fulfill- as He sees fit. Which reminds us that humilty, false or true, is between God and the individual- much as meekness, gentleness, and mercy. And while God looks on the heart, we see only the outer appearance. So, as unspiritual as it may sound, we’re better off living and letting live- that is, minding our business with God, and leaving others’ business to them.

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